It's looking like the start of a beautiful friendship between the next Harris County sheriff and the next district attorney — or however else you want to put that in criminal-justice speak.
DA-elect Kim Ogg has pushed decriminalizing misdemeanor amounts of marijuana for the past two years and will finally have the chance to implement it come January 1 — but the proposal likely will come to hold more weight given that Ogg is far from the lone reformer trying to change the criminal-justice landscape in Harris County. Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has publicly pushed for the end to arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, too. And with the two foremost law enforcement officers in the third-largest county in the nation gunning for what is bound to be a sweeping reform, Houston NORML Communications Director Jason Miller says the message this will send across the state and even the country will no doubt be significant.
"From the standpoint of public perception and within the law enforcement community, it has a big impact," Miller said, "because when people in a position that high start speaking out, which Gonzalez and Ogg already have, I think that's going to send a message to people in the law enforcement community that this is no longer the status quo."
Before the election, Ogg and Gonzalez sat for an interview with Miller and two lawmakers to discuss the future of marijuana in Texas and Harris County. Ogg's plan, backed by Gonzalez, is to stop accepting criminal charges for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, which is less than four ounces. (This does not include cases with intent to deliver or if someone is intoxicated while driving.) That way, she and Gonzalez have said, law enforcement and prosecutors can focus on putting away dangerous criminals who are a true threat to public safety, as opposed to wasting resources jailing people arrested with a few ounces of pot.
During the interview, aired on Houston MediaSource, Gonzalez decried how the war on drugs has destroyed minority communities while wasting millions in law enforcement resources for little benefit to anybody.
"When you look at the disparities throughout the years, it's affected primarily African-Americans but also the Latino community. And we have to speak out on that issue, because it's a real thing," he said. "It's my community, other communities, that are being destroyed — because it's difficult to get financial aid [after a conviction]; it's difficult to get employment, housing — so many factors beyond just that single arrest. We don't have a choice but to speak out about these issues, and speak the truth about it, and hope that the general public supports it."
For a guy who will inherit an overpopulated jail, Gonzalez is also looking forward to how many beds this will open up for people who actually belong there. In addition, because of overpopulation, current Sheriff Ron Hickman has had to ship inmates out to other counties because there's "no room at the inn," as sheriff's officials like to say. Ogg estimates that roughly 12,000 people are arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession every year, costing taxpayers millions of dollars to incarcerate them and trudge them through the court system.
"One of the reasons [the jail] is costly is because we can't manage the population we have," Gonzalez said. "The cost for overtime pay right now is pulling monies from other critical operations of the sheriff's office into simply detaining people because they can't bond out, or are being detained for minor offenses. We need to change that. The war on drugs has been a failed policy for over 40 years. We tried it. It didn't work. We need a new direction."
Gonzalez denounced the Sheriff's Association of Texas's staunch opposition to reforms as small as allowing epileptic children to use tiny amounts of cannabis oil to control seizures, saying that the public is in need of a "new generation of leaders" willing to break with tradition and think outside the box. Miller said that Gonzalez's breakaway from the Sheriff's Association is a big deal, given the organization has long been marijuana's biggest adversary in the Legislature. He doesn't expect this to change — but it's good to have the sheriff of the most populous Texas jurisdiction advocating for commonsense reforms that stop punishing people for possessing a plant.
Still, Ogg said during the interview that there may be other ways to hold people with less than four ounces of pot accountable. She suggested that plans for community service or a municipal Class C citation would be possibilities for alternatives, though those plans have not yet been fleshed out.
"We can still hold people accountable — but what we don't want to do is strip them of the opportunity to go to school, to get or keep a job, and even things such as housing — simple things that everybody needs," she said. "They're denied to people with marijuana convictions. We can end that on January 1."
To top that off, the two like-minded new leaders say they would never allow a police officer to search a woman's vagina for marijuana. So if you were at all worried about that ever happening again in Harris County, go ahead and let out a deep breath.
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