The El Paso City Council approved a measure on Tuesday that encourages police to issue citations for low-level marijuana cases instead of making arrests.
The cite-and-release proposal passed in a 7-0 vote, with one abstention. It directs the city manager to implement the policy change so that people who commit a Class A or B misdemeanor cannabis possession offense are not immediately sent to jail to be processed.
Advocates say that this will result in less wasted time and resources for law enforcement and reduce the jail population. Individuals cited would still have to appear before a judge at a later date, however.
Statewide legislation that passed in 2007 gives police the discretion to issue citations rather than bring people into custody for these misdemeanor offenses, but some law enforcement agencies have insisted on continuing to lock people up for minor cannabis crimes.
Meanwhile, El Paso isn’t the only city in Texas to push for marijuana reform at the local level while cannabis remains criminalized statewide. The Austin City Council approved a resolution aimed at ending arrests for low-level marijuana possession earlier this year, though the city’s police department said it would continue to make arrests regardless.
The El Paso City Council first took up the cite-and-release proposal in November but, after some disagreement among representatives, initially voted instead to consult with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to develop recommendations for implementation.
Now that the proposal has been approved this week it is up to the City Manager to come up with an implementation plan and put the policy into effect by September 1.
“Since 2007, all law enforcement officers in Texas have the legal authority and discretion to issue citations, rather than arresting people for small amounts of marijuana,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “They usually don’t use this discretion because of political pressure.”
The text of the El Paso measure states that “arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana result in a significant drain on the police department, requiring countless man hours and tax dollars to arrest, transport and book each alleged offender.”
The “City Council still seeks to further the goals of reducing jail population for non-violent offenders and reducing the time offices spend on jail processing procedures, a cite and release program for Class A and Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana is in the best interest of the City of El Paso and its citizens,” the resolution continues.
Police will have to receive training on how the process will work, and the local government will incur an estimated annual cost of about $2,600 to cover citation books.
El Paso first enacted marijuana prohibition in 1915, well before the federal drug war ramped up.
But in the decades since, the City Council in the Texas border town has seen some interesting leadership on the drug policy reform front. One of the clearest examples is former Councilman Beto O’Rourke (D), who said in 2009 that the violence of the drug war demanded that legislators have a conversation about the possibility of legalizing marijuana and “ending the prohibition of narcotics.”
He was attacked over an amendment he filed to that effect which passed the Council but was later vetoed by the mayor, though the exposure inadvertently helped launch him into the national spotlight, paving the path for his successful run for Congress and eventual 2020 Democratic presidential bid.
The city also currently has a separate policy called the First Chance program. Under that initiative, individuals with no prior convictions who are guilty of low-level cannabis possession can pay a $100 to avoid jail and maintain a clean record.
The Texas House of Representatives approved a marijuana decriminalization bill about a year ago, but it did not advance in the Senate before the end of the 2019 session. Lawmakers are not scheduled to meet in 2020.
“Advocates have to keep working at every level of government to push politicians to do the right thing, including a statewide policy change, banning arrests for marijuana possession,” Fazio said. “Our next shot begins in January 2021.”
Cannabis possession cases have been declining in Texas—but not because marijuana laws have formally changed. Instead, law enforcement are reporting fewer possession cases, and advocates attribute that to the legalization of hemp, which has created complications for police when attempting to determine whether a person is lawfully possessing the non-intoxicating crop or the still-illicit cousin.
Meanwhile, officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety were directed last year not to arrest people for possessing four ounces or less of marijuana and instead issue a citation. Again, this policy change was connected to hemp legalization.
The state’s proposed hemp regulations were approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January.