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Is the City of Dallas Ready to Loosen Marijuana Possession Charges?

A legislative accident of sorts has made it more timely and expensive to charge individuals with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Some on Council see an opportunity.

The marquee discussion of Monday afternoon’s packed public safety committee meeting sounds sexier than it was: a resolution that would order Dallas police to stop testing up to an ounce of marijuana if found in someone’s possession for personal use.

It is a response to a 2019 state law that accidentally made lab testing marijuana an onerous and expensive necessity for law enforcement agencies across Texas. The legislature’s legalization of hemp and CBD, which contains a minute amount of the chemical that gets you high, meant that police departments suddenly had to verify the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol present in whatever marijuana their police officers seized. The result was a de-facto decriminalization across many agencies that didn’t want to spend the few hundred dollars every time they found a gram in someone’s pocket.

Not so in Dallas. As South Dallas Councilman Adam Bazaldua rattled off during Monday’s committee discussion, the Dallas Police Department is going in a different direction than its neighbors. From January 2019 through September 2019, the city of Dallas filed charges on 1,233 misdemeanor possession cases, he said. From January 2020 through September 2020, Bazaldua said that number swelled to 1,595. Meanwhile, cases tumbled to closer to zero at most neighboring communities. Even charges from the Texas Department of Public Safety state troopers fell from 230 to 15.

“We’re one of three municipalities who have increased the amount of enforcement for small-amount possession charges,” he said. “This discussion can continue to go in circles, but the point is we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing.”

Bazaldua says he shared his resolution with City Council colleagues and the Dallas Police Department in June. He said his goal was to fall in line with state law, and, in doing so, save the police department time and money. He even hedged a bit, agreeing to a compromise with police to drop the amount from two ounces to one ounce.

Before this portion of the meeting, the Council mostly listened as the police department detailed another month that has added to the year-to-date increase in violent crimes. Murders and aggravated assaults remain up, keeping 2020 on pace to set another new record. Last year, we had over 200 murders, the first time that’s happened in a dozen years. At the current rate, we’ll reach that mark in November. Bazaldua believes the Council should do what it can to free officers up to do police work.

According to Chief U. Reneé Hall, it can take up to 2.5 hours to book a person for a crime and process the drugs into evidence. Plus, the more detailed test costs $217, up from $125, according to Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot. Creuzot has said he will no longer pursue possession charges against first time offenders. Creuzot and Chief Public Defender Lynn Richardson say they continue to see cases forwarded to their office.

“The policy of not prosecuting these cases has saved the city of Dallas half a million dollars and that was as of two months ago,” Creuzot said.

But the police clearly view marijuana as a sort of connective tissue with other crimes, even though correlation does not mean causation. The City Council in 2017 passed a cite and release resolution that allowed officers to issue a ticket for anyone found possessing four ounces or less. That isn’t happening often, because marijuana possession is so often a secondary charge added to a more significant one, often a felony. The police say the drug is often present during arrests for other crimes.

“The issue for us is not that we went searching for two ounces of marijuana. We came into contact with a violent offender for one reason or another and they were in possession,” Hall said. “At that time, when we’re taking the individual into custody, anything that’s in their possession legal or illegal or otherwise, is then processed as a result. That is where we are getting those two ounces or less.”

To prove its point, the department produced data from just one month. In September, the department made 214 arrests for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana. Just 17 of those were eligible for a cite and release ticket. The rest had warrants or felony offenses or residency issues. The year-to-date data the department presented attempted to show the same thing with less specificity. Of the 2,032 marijuana arrests, 1,658 were for less than two ounces. Only 120 were eligible for cite and release.

We don’t know how many of those were tacked onto a gun charge. Likewise, we don’t know many were added after a warrant for not paying a speeding ticket. That’s what Creuzot was getting at: first time offenders don’t deserve to have their lives uprooted for a mistake like that, especially when the state of Texas has made it more difficult to prove possession. Meanwhile, Bazaldua’s resolution would not stop the police from pursuing those other charges.

There is also the matter of the racial disparity in arrests. Creuzot has long believed it is significant enough that policy should be adjusted to address it. Black and Hispanic residents continue to be the lion’s share of those arrested for pot in Dallas County. Year to date, 56 percent of cite-and-release tickets were given to Black people. Latinos accounted for 37 percent and White people were 7 percent. Non-cite and release are similar: 65 percent are Black, 26 percent are Latino, and 8 percent are White. Creuzot brought up research from SMU to prove his point.

“The most important part when I came into office was looking at this as a racial component … African-American offenders were treated more harshly on misdemeanor marijuana as Anglos,” Creuzot said.

The department attempted to argue that Bazaldua’s resolution would harm investigations into dealing operations. But it is still illegal to sell the drug.

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, who represents Far North Dallas, suggested conducting additional research into the public health and safety consequences that she is concerned could arise as a result of passing this resolution. She wanted to know whether this could spark an increase in driving under the influence or the public usage of the drug. She asked whether it would handicap the ability to enforce these crimes. But those things would remain illegal.

Bazaldua noted that the city’s resolution would not deter police from pursuing drug dealers or violent offenders. It doesn’t legalize marijuana. This is, more than anything, a process and efficiency issue.

“The real question comes down to the difference in time it would take for a Dallas police officer to just go through the process of one of these offenses versus having to go through multiple,” said Councilman Chad West, the North Oak Cliff representative.

Here’s the deal: even in cite and release cases, a police officer has to call a supervisor who comes to the scene to field-test it, weigh it, and transport it into evidence. All of these things take time. And with the state requiring lab-tested proof of the THC makeup of each marijuana sample, it also adds a cost. With violent crime on the rise, the City Council clearly believes it has a vested interest in getting more cops into patrol.

Bazaldua believes the state gave them an out. In his mind, why not take it?

Editor’s Note: The language has been changed in the portion attributed to Mendelsohn to reflect that she was asking for more research to be conducted prior to the vote so that she can determine the best course of action should the resolution pass.

A legislative accident of sorts has made it more timely and expensive to charge individuals with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Some on Council see an opportunity.