Harris County’s New Marijuana Policies Could Keep Doors From Being Closed on Users

Benjamin H. Herndon-Miller | March 29, 2017

Image via flickr/rogiro.

Benjamin H. Herndon-Miller is a Rice University junior and a participant in the Kinder Institute’s Community Bridges program, through which he interns with Fifth Ward Enrichment Program. This article does not necessarily reflect the views or perspectives of the Kinder Institute or the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program.

When I began working at the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program, an after-school youth program for at-risk teenage boys, one of my first assignments was to help lead a discussion about the dangers of drugs and alcohol with a group of middle schoolers.

I was handed an information sheet from a sponsor organization that offered examples of how substance abuse can negatively affect someone’s life. It covered addiction, cognitive function, physical health and all the other arguments made in traditional drug education classes. After a somewhat stymied and unfruitful discussion, we arrived at the topic of marijuana. The tone changed.

Most of the students had a generally positive perception of marijuana, and about half said they had tried it. They argued that it’s natural, non-addictive and generally unlikely to contribute to health problems. Regardless of whether all their points are true, it was clear that these kids – like many other young people (or adults for that matter) – don’t view marijuana in the same light as other drugs or even alcohol.

As I spoke with them, I thought of Tim,* a close friend from high school who tried marijuana for the first time in the eighth grade, when he was about the same age as these students. We grew up in a small, affluent, college-town in northern New England, where a lot of free-time and extraneous funds often resulted in poor decisions. Tim was a bright and gifted student, but he often found himself in situations where he was getting in trouble with his parents, the school and occasionally law enforcement. Before high school had ended, Tim had been arrested several times on various charged related to his marijuana use. However, every time he was arrested, something interesting happened: He was given the option to complete a court diversion program that would annul the misdemeanor from his criminal record. By the time he graduated from high school, he had been in the back of multiple police cruisers, yet his record was squeaky-clean. Today, he is a successful student at an elite university pursuing a STEM degree.

So, what is the difference between Tim and the kids I work with in Fifth Ward? Tim’s white. They’re black. Statistically, those students in the enrichment program – and people who look like them – are more likely than people like Tim to face prosecution for using the same drug.

It has been well documented that people of all races and ethnicities, for the most part, tend to use drugs and alcohol at roughly the same rate. Among young men ages 18-25, whites are even more likely to have used marijuana in the past twelve months as compared to young black men. However, patterns of arrest and subsequent criminal prosecution in no way reflect the patterns of use.

In the United States, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In Texas, black people account for 25.8 percent of arrests for marijuana possession, while only accounting for 12.2 percent of the population. Even in the states where the disparity is the smallest, blacks still account for almost two times the percentage of arrests as compared to their percentage of the population. Even though Texas has a relatively smaller gap as compared to most states, the enforcement of marijuana prohibition in this state has clearly still been inequitable.

Not only has our country waged an unfair battle against minority populations, our criminal justice system has been designed to disproportionately criminalize the poor. When looking at the arrest records of Class B Misdemeanor marijuana offenses in Harris County for the first half of 2016, we can see that they occur almost exclusively in areas where the median income is below $80,000 per year. Not only does being arrested result in an ocean of fees and fines, but it often results in economic disenfranchisement by creating a criminal record that can follow someone for life, often obstructing employment opportunities.

Generally, these cases can be expunged from personal records with proper representation in a court of law, however, many of the people who are arrested for these types of offenses lack the resources to a proper criminal defender. Often, drug policies target minorities and residents of low-income areas, then place them into a system in which they are destined to fail.

Some places in the country have taken a different approach, and the results are interesting. In Colorado, which has fully legalized marijuana, the teen usage of marijuana has decreased. It might just be that legalization and government regulation of marijuana, like alcohol, does a better job of undermining illegal drug markets and deterring the sale of the substance to those who are underage.

Locally, reform efforts are taking shape as well. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has declared it will no longer pursue criminal charges against those found with less than four ounces of marijuana deemed for personal use. Instead, the county will offer a four-hour cognitive decision making class accompanied by a $150 fee.

Research has shown that these types of diversion programs are “significantly more effective in reducing recidivism” than standard criminal justice procedures. Moreover, the reform is poised to save Harris Country an estimated $26 million per year in prosecution costs. This new policy presents an opportunity for those who have been systematically oppressed by the criminal justice system to move forward with their lives without the burden of a criminal charge. And it will give the same opportunities to kids in Fifth Ward as were given to my friend Tim in an affluent college-town. Regardless of how you feel about legalization of marijuana, Harris County’s new policy is a step in the right direction.

*This name is a pseudonym.

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