During the campaign for Houston District Attorney, Kim Ogg was a vocal proponent of eliminating jail sentences for minor marijuana possession.

Courtesy of the Office of Kim Ogg

Harsh Sentences for Drug Users Go up in Smoke

In an unlikely area of the United States, one prosecutor is decriminalizing cannabis.

Sure, everything’s bigger in Texas. Except, that is, jail sentences for casual stoners who get caught toking up.

Houston’s newly elected district attorney, Kim Ogg, is issuing the lightest sentence the statute allows for in cases for minor marijuana possession. Instead of being tossed behind bars, most pot smokers can pay $150 fine and take a four-hour-long class on decision-making. Plus, the incident is kept off their record.

Ogg, a Democrat, made the push for leniency the centerpiece of her 2016 campaign for district attorney. It was a bold gamble when running against a Republican incumbent in a red state known for being tough on crime, but Ogg managed to gain conservative votes by pledging to go after “violent criminals, burglars and white-collar thieves,” instead. She won by eight points.

Criminal justice reformers did not see Ogg’s win as new freedom to light up a joint, but as an electoral strategy that could offer a roadmap for changing drug policy in traditionally strict counties across the country. Theoretically, they don’t need to write new laws; they can vote out incumbents that read laws as mandates to incarcerate drug users.

The concept, of course, has its critics. Next door in Montgomery County, District Attorney Brett Ligon told the Houston Chronicle that Ogg was making Houston into a “sanctuary for dope smokers.”

Additionally, it’s unclear if any of the money typically spent misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions will be saved. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner referred to the program as “cost efficient,” but several officials say that taxpayers likely won’t see a dime. Instead, resources will be spent on more dangerous threats to public safety.

“Harris County has spent more than $200 million in the past decade on more than 100,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession,” Ogg said. “The endeavor has had no tangible public safety benefit.” Rather, the marijuana crackdown “has deprived neighborhoods of officers’ time that could be spent patrolling communities, jail beds that could be used for violent criminals, crime lab resources needed for DNA testing and judicial court time that could be spent bringing serious criminals to justice.”

Research shows that lenient drug policies such as this can result in lower recidivism rates. In Houston, it’s too early to tell. A person can retake the class repeatedly, so long as they are eligible. But prosecutors can also label someone a “serial offender” and argue to a judge for a stricter punishment.

For now, the district attorney’s office is riding (ahem) high. Since the program launched on March 1, almost 900 people have avoided jail time and law enforcement is focusing its attention on break-ins and violence assaults instead.

MORE: To Reduce Drug Use, These Members of the Criminal Justice Community Advocate for Legalization, Not Criminalization

Homepage photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]