A resolution to discourage El Paso police officers from arresting residents caught with less than 4 ounces of cannabis is currently under consideration by the El Paso City Council. Instead of facing arrest, those charged with minor marijuana possession would receive a citation and a court date.
This is especially exciting news for longstanding proponents of cannabis legalization and criminal justice in the Lone Star State. Similar attempts at decriminalization are occurring across the country, even in more conservative areas less in favor of outright legalization, like El Paso.
First introduced by El Paso City Rep. Alexsandra Annello and Rep. Sam Morgan, the Cite and Release program is an important signal of change to come. In addition, the proposed program has the potential to make a substantial difference in the lives of those marginalized El Paso residents who have been impacted the most by marijuana prohibition, specifically, low-income black and brown communities.
Moreover, Rep. Annello continues to emphasize the undue cost presented by low-level marijuana arrests, arguing that the city would be better off forgoing unnecessary arrests of non-violent drug users, financially speaking.
In a recent interview with KFox14, said Rep. Annello, “They would still be held under the law and face those consequences. This is just meaning a police officer doesn’t have to take someone downtown to the jail and process them, which takes hours. The actual process of arresting someone, booking them downtown with the sheriff’s office, is astronomical and we need to look at how we deal with that.”
Rep. Joe Moody expressed his support of the program prior to the council vote last week, saying, “We’re not changing any of the underlying laws. We’re saying we’re not going to arrest you or bring you into the criminal justice system. We are going to cite like we do at the roadside. IF there isn’t anything else going on other than mere possession, we are not going to waste officer time and resources. We’re not going to waste county time to house you in the jail. We’re going to allow you to answer for that crime later in court.”
A statement by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), one of the largest organizations in the country pushing for cannabis legalization, reads, “Arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana result in a significant drain on our police department, pretrial services and court resources, require countless man-hours and tax dollars to arrest, transport, book, supervise, coordinate, and process paperwork for each alleged offender.”
With the Council’s approval, city staff are now poised to begin gathering data to build the program’s framework. A similar program has been operating in El Paso since as early as 2017. A little over two years ago, the First Chance Program was approved following a unanimous vote by the board of El Paso County Commissioners.
As part of the diversion program, residents charged with first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana are given the option to complete community service and avoid a criminal record in lieu of facing jail time.