A recent analysis by a Texas newspaper indicates that the numbers of cannabis offenses dismissed by prosecutors have increased in five of the most populous counties of the state.
According to the study — undertaken by the Austin American-Statesman based on data culled from the Texas Office of Court Administration — the rate of dismissal for cannabis has been on a significant upswing since 2011. The counties surveyed were those of Bexas, Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Travis.
Texas prosecutors say that they have chosen to focus less on small-time cannabis-related offenses and spend more time on serious crimes.
“Jurors would look at us like we are crazy,” says Dan Hamre, a prosecutor in Travis County, of prosecutors’ decisions to pursue cannabis-related cases. “‘You are spending your time, our time and the court’s time on a small amount of personal marijuana?'”
While the five counties surveyed measured decreases in cannabis prosecutions, the decreases were more pronounced in some than in others: Dallas County, for example, saw a 23-point increase in dismissals — from 18 percent to 41 percent — related to cannabis cases. The increasing rate of dismissals appears to be a statewide pattern, according to the gathered statistics.
Prosecutors statewide say that the imposition of certain programs — like those in which defendants must complete classes warning of the dangers of drugs — have been instrumental in driving down the numbers of cannabis cases that are dismissed.
“Nobody goes through three years of law school and becomes prosecutors so they can rap the knuckles of someone for smoking a joint,” says Shannon Edwards, who heads up a division of the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association. “It’s not what draws them to the profession or gets them excited about doing justice.”
The decrease in prosecutions are part of a larger shift in Texas away from Prohibition-like tactics and toward a more understanding and inclusive approach towards cannabis. Activists in the state are hopeful that the coming year may bring about legislative changes to the state policy. If nothing else, pro-cannabis activists are looking to expand the scope of the state’s medical cannabis program, which many have deemed inadequate to suit the needs of many patients.
“Families are uprooting from Texas, where they want to live because they can’t treat their children here,” says Heather Fazio, the political director of MPP Texas. “We think we can convince the Legislature that that shouldn’t be happening.”
The push has also captured the attention of the state’s elected officials, many of whom are sympathetic or outright supportive of the expansion of the program.
Few authorities in the state appear to be critical of the slowdown in prosecutions, perhaps recognizing both the statewide sea change that is taking place and the need for a more prioritized approach in the balancing of legal caseloads.
“Whatever kind of case we are talking about, we expect law enforcement and prosecutors to use discretion and put the resources in the best place,” says state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R).