“Um, because it’s still illegal, right?”
My non-lawyer friend’s response to why we still prosecute marijuana cases here in Galveston County is concise and correct. However, readers of this newspaper deserve some elaboration on the issues raised in Michael A. Smith’s editorial (“DA’s plan for small-time pot busts more problem than solution,” The Daily News, Jan. 12).
Texas changed its marijuana laws last June, creating a new distinction between hemp (now legal in some forms) and marijuana (still illegal in all forms). That difference turns on THC content. When the cannabis sativa plant contains more than 0.3 percent THC concentration, it’s still illegal marijuana in the State of Texas.
Although the law created this distinction, Texas’ publicly funded crime labs are not yet equipped to test THC concentration levels. We expect that testing to be available soon. Because there will be a backlog of cases to test, we’ve asked police agencies to prioritize the most serious cases and the most serious offenders — this means cases with larger amounts of product, crimes committed near schools and other protected areas, crimes involving weapons, and defendants with long criminal histories should all be tested first.
In the meantime, Texas authorizes its peace officers to arrest someone whom they have probable cause to believe possesses marijuana. And, as a society, we expect police to enforce Texas law and not simply disregard an entire category of offenses. The same expectation applies to prosecutors.
Research continues to prove that marijuana use can have serious harmful effects, especially in young populations. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine reports on studies showing that young people using marijuana can have more difficulty learning and retaining information and are more likely to drop out of school. Frequent users can suffer significant declines in IQ. About 9 percent of all marijuana users become addicted, but 17 percent of adolescents become addicted and as much as 50 percent of daily users become addicted. And while our society struggles with a raging mental health crisis, how can we ignore research proving that marijuana use increases the risk of depression and schizophrenia?
Marijuana sold today contains at least four times as much THC as it did in the ’80s. A quick browse of an online U.S. dispensary shows plants with THC levels of more than 20 percent, exponentially higher than the legal threshold of 0.3 percent. This isn’t your father’s marijuana that’s being marketed to our children.
That being said, our focus on these cases is rehabilitation. Here in Galveston County we have a robust pretrial diversion program designed to assist young and first-time offenders in recovery while avoiding criminal convictions. Marijuana possession, by itself, is a non-violent offense. We make every effort to give these offenders a chance to make things right and keep their records clean.
So, why not stop prosecuting marijuana cases altogether? The Texas Constitution is plain-speaking when it comes to the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches: Nobody in one branch can exercise any power belonging to the other branches. If Texans decide to change the law and legalize marijuana, then we’ll do so through our duly elected legislators. That is the right — and only — way it should be done. Until then, it’s reasonable to expect police and prosecutors to enforce the law as written. And as for me and my office, we will continue to follow the law.