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After Harris County Moves Away From Pot Enforcement, White House Hints at Crackdown

After Harris County Moves Away From Pot Enforcement, White House Hints at Crackdown
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The top spokesman for President Donald Trump hinted Thursday that the federal government would ramp up enforcement of marijuana laws, a shot across the bow to cities and states that have decriminalized the drug.

Though Texas has yet to permit recreational marijuana use, a crackdown from the federal government could upend a landmark joint decision by Harris County police and the district attorney's office to stop enforcing low-level marijuana laws.

"There is still a federal law that we need to abide by in terms of...recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature," Spicer said at his daily White House briefing.

Eight states — California, Nevada, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine have legalized recreational weed, while another 17 have approved medicinal use.

Spicer said the federal government would not target medicinal marijuana laws, but likened recreational pot smoking to opioid abuse — though marijuana is not an opiate.

The federal Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana, along with other drugs such as cocaine and heroin, as a Schedule 1 substance. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the government in recent decades has chosen not to interfere with states and cities that decided to make recreational marijuana legal.

A reversal of that precedent could wreck the burgeoning marijuana industry in the United States, which eclipsed $6.7 billion in sales in 2016.

Bills in the Texas Legislature to legalize marijuana (including some in the current session) have so far failed, but Harris County officials decided to stop waiting on Austin to adopt reforms.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez were both elected this past November, and their platforms included pledges to stop enforcing low-level marijuana offenses. Gonzalez and Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo agreed that misdemeanor pot busts often tied up officers for hours and took time away from more serious investigations. Ogg contends small-time marijuana prosecutions can ruin nonviolent offenders' employment and educational chances.

So, the officials announced last week that starting March 1, Harris County would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases of fewer than four ounces. Instead, defendants will be diverted to non-jail punishments. Harris County will join Brooklyn County in New York as the only counties in the United States with such a policy.

As local police agencies complained that low-level marijuana enforcement was a major drain on their departments' resources, it is unclear how the federal government would be able to take on that role, especially as the Trump administration redirects agents to deporting undocumented immigrants.

Spicer did not articulate Trump's vision for marijuana enforcement, and said the details will be hashed out by the Justice Department.
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Zach Despart is the managing editor of the Houston Press and oversees the news and music verticals.
Contact: Zach Despart