How not arresting first-time pot offenders will benefit Harris County

Harris County's new marijuana diversion program went into effect Wednesday. People stopped by police on suspicion of marijuana possession for the first time can now elect to take a 4-hour course rather than be arrested.

"Marijuana is a gateway conviction," said David Mitcham, Harris County's Trial Bureau Chief. "This is how criminal records get started, and we want to try to nip that in the bud to give people a chance to not be labeled as criminals for an offense of this nature."

According to the policy, when a first-time offender is caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana in Harris County, police will present a form detailing the diversion course. If the person agrees to the course, a signed copy of the form will be held with the evidence. Upon completion of the course within 90 days, the bag of evidence will be destroyed. The individual's record will go untouched.

"You avoid being arrested, you avoid having to go to court, you avoid an arrest record, and you avoid a court record," explained Mitcham.

Failure to complete the course after agreeing to do so will result in a warrant being issued for the individual, who is then subject to arrest and trial. Yes, you can completely turn down the course and opt for traditional arrest and trial.

The program will benefit the county as a whole, says Mitcham, since it is designed to, "redirect scarce state resources and money, and police time and effort, toward more serious offenses [such as] crimes against persons and property." The District Attorney's office estimates the annual savings will be close to $26 million.

Another perk of the program could lie in the fact that evidence collected for those taking the course will not be subject to lab testing. Mitcham says this will likely free up labs to more quickly process other items, such as DNA kits for rape cases.

Records and data related to the diversion program will be collected and made available to the public, according to the District Attorney's office. Mitcham estimates between 8 and 10 thousand people are arrested for first-time marijuana possession charges each year.

The policy is not to be confused with the legalization of marijuana, nor is it a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"If a person is suspect of committing another crime while in possession they will be arrested," said Mitcham. Other exceptions to the program include those on probation or similar court-ordered supervision, those caught in a drug-free zone such as a school or courthouse, and those found with items suggesting they might be dealing the drug.

The program is only available to those detained in Harris County, Texas.

For Corey Jacobson, who was caught with a small amount of pot while attending Humble High School, the program is an important way for young people to re-route their life choices.

"I went to jail and I got a charge on my record," recounted Jacobson. "As a young person you don't want views of you to be negative, that's going to effect you later on."

Jacobson went on to have several future minor run-ins with the law. He admits the stress of having a criminal record by 17 years old left him struggling to get his life on track. "What Kim Ogg [is doing] is give people an opportunity, a second chance."

Have you had an experience with the new marijuana diversion program in Harris County? Write to Kaitlin Monte on her Facebook page: