Last Friday, Kim Ogg, the Democratic candidate for Harris County District Attorney, was the guest of honor at a gathering of the Houston chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-pot legalization group.
Just let that sink in for a moment. A major party candidate vying for the largest prosecutor's office in Texas, and one of the largest in the country, took her campaign to a pro-marijuana gathering. There, Ogg spoke not only of the money Harris County taxpayers could save if the county shifted how it prosecutes misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, but of the war on drugs' human toll.
Here's part of what she told the NORML crowd Friday at Cafe Adobe:
"Let me explain the human toll. If you have a misdemeanor marijuana conviction, it makes it hard to go get an apartment. It makes it really hard to go get a job. If you're a licensed professional, you'll be explaining that arrest and the conviction, even if it's deferred adjudication, for the rest of your career. All over a substance that's legal in two states and medically available in 24. ... I always thought it was a terrible idea to throw people who had a joint in their pocket into the same jail cell with guys that I prosecuted for rape, for murder, for fraud and embezzlement, for crimes that actually hurt our families."
How Ogg would handle misdemeanor marijuana cases versus her opponent, GOP incumbent Devon Anderson, has become one of the major sticking points in the campaign for Harris County DA this year. Ogg wants to implement a so-called "cite and summons" approach, which state lawmakers made an option for local prosecutors back in 2007. Under Ogg's program, anyone caught with under 4 ounces of pot would get a court summons instead of a trip to county jail. When they show in court, prosecutors would offer offenders a clean record if they do 16 hours of community service -- two days cleaning up trash in the bayous, or what Ogg's been calling "clean and green."
Anderson's program is, well, a little more complicated. Anyone caught with under 2 ounces of pot (a class B misdemeanor) by a Houston Police Department officer or a Harris County sheriff's deputy would be arrested and taken to a police station to be IDed and fingerprinted. The officer then determines if you're eligible for Anderson's "First Chance Intervention Program" -- you have to be a "non-violent first-time" offender, although it appears to ultimately be up to the discretion of the individual officer and his/her supervisor whether you're deemed "eligible" and get to escape jail time. Anyone arrested by another Harris County law enforcement agency will still likely go to jail, but eligible offenders might still be offered the program once they get to court.
Then, your charges maybe dropped if you complete eight hours of either community service or a substance-abuse class.
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Even if the programs appear to be similar (Ogg vehemently insists they're not, saying, "They're calling her (Anderson's) program a watered down version of mine, but it's not really mine at all; I don't understand her program"), they come from very different philosophies.
Unlike Ogg, Anderson doesn't speak of a community that's tired of wasting money locking up small-time pot offenders, or of a public that's shifting in favor of marijuana reform (for example, take the Texas Tribue/UT poll early this year that found 77 percent of Texans support medical marijuana and 49 percent would legalize it for any purpose; or Rice University's latest Kinder Institute survey, which found that 72 percent of Houston-area residents think we shouldn't jail people for small amounts of pot and 65 percent think medical marijuana should be legal).
In announcing her program, Anderson said: "This program is not an endorsement for the use of marijuana. However, it gives first-time non-violent offenders who are caught with a small amount of marijuana a chance to stay out of the criminal justice system by choosing to participate in the program and learn from their mistake." She's also referred to it as a "scared straight" program. After speaking about marijuana prosecution in a recent debate, Anderson warned that small-time drug possession "forms the basis of most of the crime that we see down at the court house."
"I don't agree with that, and that's not my experience," Ogg told us Friday night. "My experience with violent criminals is that some are crimes of opportunity, many are influenced by alcohol and some drugs, but that's rarely marijuana. ... We have mixed apples and oranges by treating people in possession of small amounts of drugs as criminals. And we have created a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it makes it harder for them to get jobs, get housing. We see them in and out of the system, and I'm against that."