Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced a new “cite and release” pilot program aiming to put fewer Bexar County residents, including members of the UTSA student body, in jail for nonviolent crimes—including marijuana possession offenses under four ounces.
Instead of arresting offenders on the spot and sending them to jail, Bexar County officers have the option (on a case-by-case basis) to issue a citation with a court date and send the offender on their way.
During a press conference, Salazar described who could benefit from the cite and release program—“the 18, 19-year-old college kid that made a mistake that, quite honestly, thousands of kids every day make that same mistake,”
A form of discretionary action had been afforded to the UTSA Police Department prior to the cite and release program. The Student Code of Conduct Sec. 514 states those guilty of possession face a minimum sanction of suspension for a specified period of time, but any other sanction is determined by the Hearing Officer. The Hearing Officer’s options of punishment are listed in Sec 300 and/or 303 and vary in severity, ranging from a disciplinary warning to denying students their degrees.
UTSA students are arrested for possession of marijuana, but the UTSA Police Department reports do not indicate the type of “drug law” offenses students commit in their annual reporting.
The 2017 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, released Sept. 29, 2017, reported 103 students arrested for drug law violations in 2016. In 2015, 115 students were arrested for drug law violations.
San Antonio is not the first major city in Texas to implement policy changes to nonviolent, low-level crimes like possession of marijuana. Harris County (Houston) announced efforts to decriminalize marijuana as early at Oct. 6 2014 by substituting prison time with drug awareness classes and community service for those in possession of under two ounces of marijuana. On Feb 16, 2017, Harris County announced a stronger effort to decriminalize marijuana by upping the threshold of protection to those in possession of under four ounces of marijuana.
Optimistic recreational marijuana users may view these policy changes by Texas police departments as an indication Texas is nearing marijuana legalization— policy changes often lead to law, especially following in-practice success. Unfortunately, the police leadership’s language hints otherwise.
In the press conference, Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Nico LaHood said, “This program will allow officers to stay on our streets and continue to protect our community, help prevent the overburdening of our criminal justice system and at the same time, allow the citizen accused an opportunity to learn from a poor choice without having the stigma of an arrest follow them for the rest of their life.”
Other officials from San Antonio to Houston highlight the same motivations for their efforts to decriminalize the possession of marijuana—to prevent the overburdening of the criminal justice system.
UTSA Chief of Police Gerald Lewis resolved to not discuss decriminalizing marijuana in an interview with the Paisano last spring.
“I am not sure if it would be appropriate for me to even discuss that,” Lewis said. “That’s really up to legislation more so than anything else, not up to a person like me.”
Whether intended or not, decriminalizing marijuana does affect the public perception of marijuana. It may be a slow turn but a positive perception is a catalyst to legalization – legalizing marijuana is the next sensible step.