As someone who studies the effectiveness of criminal justice policies, I rarely can applaud a specific policy in Texas. But I could do just that when I heard about a new pilot program taking shape in Dallas.
The Dallas City Council is considering a program of ticketing rather than arresting individuals caught in possession of 4 ounces or less of marijuana. The procedure, known as cite and release, involves the police issuing a ticket to the offender, much like the procedure used for traffic violations. The ticket is a promise to appear in court on a particular date and time.
This is a good idea because it avoids the stigma of individuals being formally arrested and booked into jail. It also saves significant amounts of police time as well as expensive jail resources. Other Texas city and county governments should take note.
Although the new cite and release policy seems like a kinder, gentler approach, the reality is that possession of marijuana in Texas is a criminal offense with criminal consequences. Under current Texas law, possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. Possession of between 2 and 4 ounces of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
There is a painful irony here. Punishment does not reduce drug use. Years of scientific evidence shows that neither the threat of punishment nor the actual experience of punishment deters substance abuse. We have tried for decades to punish our way out of a massive drug problem.
We have spent $1 trillion on the war on drugs, the vast majority of that going to arrest, conviction and punishment and trying to control the supply of drugs. One would be hard pressed to find anyone today who can seriously say this has been a successful effort.
One of the primary reasons that punishment does not work is that substance abuse is a disorder of the brain. For decades we have characterized drug use as a choice (remember Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign?). In many cases of recreational drug use, it is a choice. That is not my concern.
My concern is with substance abuse, a disorder characterized by neurological changes to the brain that often result in increasing frequency of use, increasing dosage, and failed attempts to quit. There is evidence that the neurological changes to the brain due to chronic marijuana use often lead to the abuse of and addiction to other drugs. There is also evidence linking early, chronic use of marijuana to mental health disorders.
Today, nearly 80 percent of individuals in the Texas criminal justice system have substance abuse problems. Substance abuse is by far the most common crime-related problem among offenders. Some individuals enter the justice system because of a drug charge. Others enter on other charges, but drugs are clearly implicated.
The bottom line is that we have a monumental drug problem in Texas. Punishment does not reduce demand. Continuing to criminalize possession of marijuana is counterproductive.
Texas has a number of drug courts that are designed to divert offenders from prosecution and punishment and into treatment. The problem is that most of them are for felony offenders.
We should keep our eyes on an innovative new program in Harris County that not only uses cite and release for individuals caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana, offenders can opt for diversion to treatment and/or community service. If they successfully complete the diversion program, they will avoid a criminal conviction, which in turn avoids the potential longer-term barriers to housing and employment that often accompany a conviction.
Reform should not stop at the front end of the process of arrest versus cite and release. True reform must involve developing the laws, procedures, policies and resources to provide appropriate drug treatment to those who need it. The evidence clearly shows this will reduce recidivism and save money.
William R. Kelly is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, specializing in criminal justice policy.
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