Bruce Nelsen is reflected in a puddle as he walks past a mural of the Texas state flag, painted on the side of a building in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 8, 2002. (Ron Baselice, The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Texas legalizing weed — could it happen? Progress is coming at the local level

Via The Associated Press. The following appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

After a wave of marijuana referendums passed throughout the nation in November, the U.S. now has 29 states that allow some form of legal marijuana — covering 1 in 5 Americans.

Texas, of course, is not among them. But progress is coming at the local level.

Since 2007, state law has allowed municipalities, if they so choose, to issue written citations — the equivalent of a traffic ticket — for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Just last year, Dallas tried to embrace this commonsense “cite and release” policy — and failed. Let’s hope Houston’s new efforts fare better.

Effective March 1, the city decriminalized possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana. Houston’s policy goes beyond simple cite-and-release. Instead, officers will simply confiscate the drugs if the suspect agrees to take a four-hour drug education class. No arrests, no tickets, no appearances in court.

Why make the move? Officials are persuaded that the new policy will improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars.

Over the last decade, Houston District Attorney Kim Ogg explained, “we have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety.” Now, that time and money can be used to address more pressing issues — like robbery, sexual assault, murder.

Those are the financial and safety arguments — but the move also has larger societal implications, Ogg said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.” More than 107,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the last 10 years. Officials expect the new policy could divert about 12,000 people out of the criminal justice system each year.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote on Twitter: We’re finding better more cost-efficient ways to address drug misdemeanors that benefit community, offenders while maintaining #publicsafety

You can quibble with some of the details — 4 ounces does seem to be a lot of marijuana, for instance — but Houston’s overall move should be applauded. And Dallas should take note.

By the Dallas Police Department’s own numbers, around half of all drug arrests in 2015 were for marijuana, a drug their own blog acknowledged “is widely used and is seen as a less serious crime.”

And Texans seem ready for a change. According to a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, only 17 percent of Texans say pot should be criminalized under all circumstances, down from 24 percent two years ago. But more than 80 percent support legalizing at least some use of marijuana, including 53 percent who think Texas should go beyond medical marijuana and allow possession for any use.

Given that this is Texas, we know it’s unlikely that any large-scale marijuana reform will happen overnight. But officials at the state and local levels need to pay attention to public sentiment and experiments like Houston’s. And the next time we talk about DPD’s police officers being overworked, its budget being spread too thin, let’s think practically about what kind of police work we’re prioritizing.

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