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Texas DA's vow to continue prosecuting pot possession cases sparks concern over costs, fairness

This piece originally appeared in the Center Square

Despite a number of Texas prosecutors saying they would end low-level marijuana cases due to complications over the legalization of hemp products, the Hays County Criminal District Attorney’s Office is vowing to pursue such prosecutions.

Gov. Greg Abbott last month signed House Bill 1325, which legalized hemp products containing under 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant. Several district attorneys have argued that they lack the testing equipment to distinguish between possession of hemp or marijuana products, making low-level pot cases problematic.

But Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau is not part of this camp.

“The Hays County Criminal District Attorney’s Office (HCDA) will continue to accept marijuana possession and distribution cases from law enforcement and will continue to deal with those cases as justice requires, as well as any additional charges under the new law,” a news release from Mau’s office states.

HB 1325 did not legalize the possession or distribution of small amounts of pot in the state, the HCDA’s Office said. In fact, the new law creates new offenses relating to how hemp products are handled, according to the HCDA’s Office. These include failure to have the proper documents while transporting hemp products.

“As with all criminal cases, if forensic testing is necessary before a prosecution can go forward, the HCDA will examine the need for the testing against the time, money and resources required to obtain the test results and proceed as appropriate on a case-by-case basis,” the HCDA statement says.

A letter signed by Abbott, the lieutenant governor and the state attorney general that was sent to county and city prosecutors earlier this month backs up Mau’s position, arguing that low-level marijuana cases can move forward even with the signing of HB 1325. That’s because circumstantial evidence can help prosecutors advance such cases in the justice system, the letter said.

But not all Hays County residents support this position. Faylita Hicks, a book author and county resident for 16 years, said in a recent Op-ed that possession of under 2 ounces of pot has been the top arrest charge in the county for the past six years. In turn, the county has a jail overpopulation problem, meaning inmates often have to be transported to other counties at taxpayer expense.

Hicks also cited Washington-based Justice Policy Institute data showing that 70 percent of Texas inmates in 2002 were African-American or Latino – indicating bias in the system.

“Mau’s decision to continue to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses should alarm residents who prioritize transparency from their local leadership – especially considering how common it is for detainees to lose their jobs, personal possessions and homes while they sit in jail,” Hicks said in the oped.

In addition, the cost of upgrading testing equipment to distinguish between marijuana and hemp products could cost the county between $500,000 and $1 million annually, according to the oped. The best recourse for the county and defendants in the local justice system would be to simply stop pursuing low-level pot cases, Hicks said.

This piece originally appeared in the Center Square



Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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