The El Paso City Council just voted 7-0 to approve a new resolution that will help keep low-level cannabis offenders out of city jails.
This new resolution will apply to Class A and B misdemeanors for cannabis, including possession of less than two ounces of weed. The resolution directs county police to issue citations for these minor offenses, rather than dragging the offender straight to jail for processing. The new ordinance does not actually reduce the consequences for these crimes, but does prevent cops from locking people up for weeks before their court date.
“The person is not being immediately arrested and that of course is very beneficial to the police department because they are not losing hours waiting to book someone or process someone,” said El Paso County Court Judge Ruben Morales to ABC affiliate KVIA 7.
The new policy will work in conjunction with El Paso's existing “First Chance” policy. Under this policy, a first-time minor weed offender has the option to keep their criminal record clean by paying a $100 fine and serving 8 hours of community service. Since that policy was enacted, it has had a 75 percent completion rate. Nearly 500 first-time weed offenders have already used this program to keep their criminal records clean.
Judge Morales told KVIA that the “First Chance program is for the people who have never been in trouble, who have clean records and are trying to... keep those clean records.” In contrast, the new cite and release policy “is for the people that don't qualify” for the First Chance program.
The path to this new policy began last fall, when the City Council voted to begin research on the implications of adopting a cite and release policy. Following the passage of this initial resolution, city officials solicited opinions from local law enforcement and prosecutors. Advocates for the policy argued that it would reduce the burden on local police, while also reducing prison overcrowding, which would in turn reduce incarceration costs for the county.
The policy only represents a modest step towards cannabis reform, as it fails to address a large portion of the city's cannabis users. In El Paso, most minor offenses involving flower are categorized as misdemeanors, but possession of THC vaping products is considered a felony.
Last November, as incidents of vaping-related lung illness spread throughout the US, El Paso cops began cracking down on weed vapes. By the end of last year, El Paso cops charged nearly 250 teenagers with felony weed possession for using vapes — six times as many people who were charged with weed-related felonies in 2018.
Other Texas municipalities have also approved minor cannabis reform policies. Dallas adopted a similar marijuana cite and release policy in 2017, and Houston decriminalized minor pot crimes that same year. The Austin City Council officially decriminalized minor possession this January, but local police said that they will ignore the resolution and continue arresting people for these inconsequential crimes.