In 2014, a central distinction between candidates for Harris County District Attorney was their views on marijuana.
It seems that theme could repeat itself in 2016, as Republican incumbent DA Devon Anderson fights to keep her post. This week, Anderson’s main challenger in 2014, Kim Ogg, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that if elected, she’ll refuse to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. The move would effectively legalize small-time pot possession in Harris County – even if cops wanted to make marijuana arrests, such cases would stall as soon as they hit the DA’s office.
Ogg still has to clear the Democratic primary for an Ogg-Anderson rematch in the general election. She’s up against Morris Overstreet, a former appellate judge who told the Chron editorial board he’d consider a “cite and release” program for first-time pot offenders, as well as long-shot perennial candidate Lloyd Oliver.
But if Ogg has any real name recognition with voters (that is, outside legal and political circles), it’s because of her unique stance on pot last election. Ogg’s plan to funnel all misdemeanor marijuana defendants to community service instead of jail and prosecution became a central issue that dominated debates between the two candidates.
Anderson ultimately came around on pot reform during the race. She proposed and then, once elected, implemented a pre-trial diversion program that, while not without hiccups, was recently expanded to cover even more small-time drug defendants. Anderson has since even spoken of the “culture change” that needs to happen within the local criminal justice system as it relates to substance abuse and mental illness.
Over the course of the debates in 2014, however, it was quite clear Anderson and Ogg approach pot reform from very different places. At the end of one 2014 debate, a seemingly frustrated Anderson had this to say about drug reform: "You know, a lot has been spoken today about small amounts of drugs or prosecuting drug users, ignoring the fact that this forms the basis of most of the crime that we see down at the courthouse."
Ogg, meanwhile, throughout her 2014 campaign highlighted not just how much money she thinks pot reform could save the county (she claims upwards of $10 million annually) but also the human cost of failing to move on marijuana. Here’s what she told us back in 2014:
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"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."
As we’ve reported before, this isn’t an abstract debate. Just ask Charneshia Corley, who last year was pulled over by Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies for rolling through a stop sign. When they thought they smelled pot, this is what the deputies did, according to Corley’s attorney, Sam Cammack: “The deputies slammed this 21-year-old girl facedown on the ground and got on top of her. The deputy grabbed her pants, pulled her pants down all the way past her ankles, while officers held her legs. Then one of them stuck her fingers up inside her.”
Ogg, should she clear the Democratic primary, has now put forward a marijuana policy that goes even further than what she proposed back in 2014 (under Ogg's new plan, there would be no reason for those deputies to handcuff, probe and arrest someone like Corley). Perhaps that’s because in the past two years, it’s become all the more evident that public perception on pot is moving in that direction, even in Texas. Polls continue to show the majority of people in Houston and across the state favor decriminalizing marijuana or at the very least lowering criminal penalties for pot possession. Even Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland has called the drug war a “failure” and had this to say about marijuana: "Most police chiefs understand that when it comes to marijuana use, we cannot criminalize such a large population of society that engage in casual marijuana use. We can't, you just can't continue to do that, we understand that.”
Basically, if we get another Ogg-Anderson race in the general election, expect a lot more pot talk.