Officials respond to Harris County marijuana diversion program

A new program designed to reduce the county's costs in pursuing misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions began on March 1 in Harris County.

A new program designed to reduce the county's costs in pursuing misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions began on March 1 in Harris County.

Harris County’s Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program, under which individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana will have an option to take a county educational class instead of serving jail time, went into effect March 1. The program has seen a mixed reaction from local officials, but opposing legislators have yet to act since the program was announced in February.

Under the new program announced Feb. 16 by District Attorney Kim Ogg, there will be no arrest, citation, charge, jail or record for those caught possessing up to 4 ounces of marijuana if they enter a voluntary diversion program. If less than 4 ounces of cannabis is found on a person, he or she will have to take a four-hour educational class called "Cognitive Decision Making" within 90 days. Once the class is done, no charge is ever filed.

"Although I support pre-arrest diversion programs for first-time youthful offenders for possession of small amounts of marijuana, this is a dangerous policy that goes too far," said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, whose district includes a portion of Harris County. "It's bad for the county, bad for our kids, and good for the drug dealers."

However, Huffman and other local legislators have yet to challenge the county program at the legislative level. As of March 2, no legislation has been filed by local legislators to prevent Ogg's diversion program since it was announced.

Other Harris County legislators could not be reached for comment or declined to comment on the program. State Rep. Kevin Roberts, R-Spring, declined to comment on the program. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was not available to comment this week and state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Tomball, and state Rep. John Whitmire, D-Houston, could not be reached for comment.

“It’s unclear in which direction conservative lawmakers will go,” said Melissa Hamilton, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston.

Hamilton said in recent years there has been a growing movement among conservatives to support diversion programs to reduce the jail and prison population in Texas.

"I do think it’s relevant that it’s a misdemeanor and under 4 ounces," Hamilton said. "Diversion programs for minor amounts of marijuana are common. We have been successful in saving money and peoples' lives by diverting them from jail and diverting them from having a criminal conviction."

Hamilton said lawmakers opposed to the program could counter the law by enacting statewide requirements for prosecution in these cases. However, such requirements are uncommon, she said.

“Outside of domestic violence [prosecution], we tend not to see those statewide requirements on prosecution,” Hamilton said.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his department is prepared to work with the new guidelines set by the district attorney's office.

"We at the Precinct 4 Constable's Office will continue to serve and protect our citizens," Herman said. "I have personally met with [District Attorney] Ogg on her new program, and we will work with her office on the policy she has set."
By Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of that paper in March 2017 and editor of The Woodlands edition in January 2019.