It's a new day for small-time pot smokers in Harris County, Texas.
A new policy will allow people caught with up to four ounces of marijuana to avoid arrest or jail time by taking a four-hour drug-education class.
The policy, announced recently by District Attorney Kim Ogg, is expected to save the area more than $25 million in costs for the jail, courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, lab testing and officers' time.
Under the new policy, law enforcement officers who find probable cause to arrest someone with fewer than four ounces of marijuana will do two things: confiscate the drugs and have the person sign a contract promising to take the drug education class. The pot and paperwork will be dropped off at the station at the end of the shift.
If the offenders complete the class, the drugs are destroyed, the contract is filed away and there remains neither an arrest nor court record. If they don't, an arrest warrant will be issued and a regular criminal case filed.
The program leaves no paper trail for offenders and encompasses up one-fourth of a pound of marijuana, which would fill about two sandwich bags.
The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.
The county has spent $25 million a year for the past 10 years locking up people for having less than 4 ounces of marijuana. Ogg said those resources would be better spent arresting serious criminals such as burglars, robbers and rapists.
"We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety," she said. "We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation."
Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.
Since there is no arrest, there is no arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents connected to the encounter. The plan calls for officers to seize the marijuana and drop it off at a police station at the end of their shift, along with a record of the encounter in case the suspect does not take the class.
"You do not get charged with anything," Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, who heads the DA's trial bureau, said Wednesday. "You have a pathway where you can avoid going to court."