DA Brett Ligon’s misguided criticism of Harris County diversion program for misdemeanor marijuana

Montgomery County District Attorney, Brett Ligon, blasted Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg, over a new pre-charge diversion program for misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. The program, announced today, will divert individuals accused of possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (up to 4 ounces). People will no longer arrested, charged, sent to jail, have their driver license suspended, or have a criminal record for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Instead, they will simply agree to complete a 4-hour educational class. A criminal charge will not be filed as long as the class is completed within 90 days.

“Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers. I swore an oath to follow the law – all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce,” Ligon told the Montgomery County Police Reporter’s Scott Engle. “Despite a rise in violent crime rates in Harris County, Ms. Ogg chooses to focus her attention on the issue of legalization of marijuana,” Ligon said. “I hope it’s a mistake in judgment on her part and not a sign of things to come. I respect the jurisdictional differences between Montgomery County and Harris County, and I hope she does too.” He went on to state that ““She Does Not Speak for Majority of Texas District & County Attorneys”

Initially covered through video at a press conference, Ligon spoke at length about his opposition to such a policy, saying “If you have mob mentality and if you have mob enforcement, then you don’t have the rule of law anymore. You just have people doin’ what they wanna do.”

DA Brett Ligon’s argument is fundamentally flawed in several ways. First, his criticism came the day before the program was announced, before any details about it had been made clear. Ligon jumped the gun by assuming that DA Ogg has chosen to “focus her attention on the issue of marijuana legalization” because the program is just a pre-charge diversion program. It is not legalization or even decriminalization. DA Ogg is using her prosecutorial discretion well within her authority as District Attorney to prioritize law enforcement resources.

DA Ligon is merely trying to score political points by criticizing a Democrat. When the previous Harris County DA, Republican Devon Anderson, announced a very similar pre-charge diversion program in 2015, DA Ligon was silent. He only concerns himself with touting failed prohibitionist policies when a Democrat is rolling them back.

Second, his claim that Harris County will become a “sanctuary for dope smokers” is about the most absurd aspect of his argument. There aren’t any cannabis consumers out there willing and ready to forfeit their stash and pay $150 to complete a 4-hour class in order to avoid being charged. His use of the term “dope smokers” goes to show that he is nothing more than a mouthpiece for prohibition, a policy that has done absolutely nothing to improve the safety of the communities in Montgomery County, but has in fact been detrimental to public safety.

His claim that “You don’t have the rule of law anymore. You just have people doin’ what they wanna do.” was equally as ridiculous. People “just doin’ what they wanna do” Really? There’s a term for that, it’s called freedom. As long as responsible adults aren’t hurting anyone else, but merely possessing cannabis, they should not be subject to being punished by their government. Unfortunately, we still do not have that freedom in Texas. DA Ligon seems to think that someone having their cannabis seized by police and then threatened with criminal charges is “what they wanna do.” I’m sorry but I don’t know anyone who wants that. The truth is, we do have the rule of law, and in Harris County, we now have an approach that is much smarter when it comes to crime and punishment. Once the laws are changed at the state level, then we will have more of the freedoms that people in other states currently have.

Unfortunately, DA Ligon’s administration will continue to enforce the prohibition of marijuana in full force, arresting and jailing thousands of people every year for nothing more than possessing a plant substance that is far safer than alcohol. Some of them, including cancer patients and those suffering from other debilitating conditions, benefit greatly from the medicinal properties of cannabis. Many patients experience these benefits without smoking as they prefer to use edible forms of marijuana for the medicinal and therapeutic benefits. However, according to DA Ligon, we are all just “dope smokers.”

Third, he implied that DA Ogg is “picking and choosing” which laws she wants to enforce and ignoring laws put in place by the Texas Legislature. In reality, laws against misdemeanor possession of marijuana in Harris County, both class A and class B offenses, are still being enforced. They are being enforced in a different way, with a pre-charge diversion program. Diversion programs are nothing new in Texas. They have been used by DA’s all over the state for decades. These programs have been shown to help communities better prioritize law enforcement resources and reduce the cost burden for taxpayers.

Additionally, DA Ligon went on to say that DA Ogg “doesn’t speak for the State of Texas or the majority of elected District and County Attorney’s across the State.” Here’s who she does speak for. She speaks for the people. She speaks for the majority of Texas citizens who support reducing penalties for low-level marijuana possession. According to a 2015 UT/Texas Tribune poll, 68% of Texans support this type of policy change.

Valuable Viewpoints from local law enforcement

DA Ligon also seems to be terribly confused about an educational flier produced by our coalition, Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. The flier entitled “Valuable Viewpoints”, references quotes from DA Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Police Chief Art Acevedo. Kim Ogg’s quote was a statement she made to KHOU back in November. She said “We don’t want people to have a permanent criminal record for a small offense that then stands in the way of future opportunity.”

DA Ligon seems to think that DA Ogg is a spokesperson for our coalition, referring to it as “her organization.” When in reality, the flier simply displays a quote that Ogg made to the media. When an educational group creates an educational flier, they can quote influential people and include those quotes along with a photo of the people. The purpose of the flier is to show that some very important figures in the law enforcement community have made statements supporting these viewpoints. These were statements made to the media, not directly to or on behalf of our coalition.

District and county attorneys know prosecuting marijuana cases is a waste of time and resources.

Another flier produced by our coalition, shows a statistic from the Office of Court Administration with a graphic produced by the Austin-American Statesman. Included is another quote from Kim Ogg that she made following her inauguration, according to CW39 NewsFix, she stated, “I’ve never felt good about putting marijuana users in the same jail cells as murderers. It’s just not fair, it doesn’t make any sense, and our country is resoundingly against that.”

The statistic shows that misdemeanor marijuana possession cases in the 5 most populous counties in Texas are being dismissed at greater and greater rates. From 22.9% in 2011 to 31.3% in 2015. These are statistical facts, however, DA Ligon questions the accuracy of the statistic.

“Further, I have my doubts about the study that her organization touts regarding the dismissal rate for misdemeanor cases. Experienced prosecutors know that misdemeanor possession cases are usually filed in combination with other charges and are likely dismissed as part of a plea to another matter, or disposed of through pre-trial diversion programs, only after the defendant has had the opportunity to receive drug and alcohol treatment and counseling,” Ligon stated.

DA Ligon points out that many misdemeanor possession cases are disposed of through pre-trial diversion programs. DA Ogg’s pre-charge diversion program, just like the previous program under then-DA Anderson, works in a similar fashion. With one key difference, individuals are not charged with a crime and do not have to appear in court. This is an important distinction that allows the program to greatly reduce costs and free up law enforcement resources, these are areas where pre-trial diversion has fallen short.

DA Ligon seems to be touting policies that require individuals to have “the opportunity to receive drug and alcohol treatment and counseling.” To assume that every single person with a small amount of cannabis in their possession needs to be admitted to treatment and counseling is absurd. That would be like saying anyone who drinks a beer at a baseball game or has a glass of wine with dinner needs to be admitted to treatment. DA Ogg’s program does require individuals to take a 4 hour educational class. This is a great improvement over the failed and costly pre-trial diversion programs that, for example, may require a misdemeanor marijuana offender to spend 40 hours of their time attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Obviously, those requirements make no sense. DA Ogg has expanded upon previous DA Anderson’s pre-charge diversion program, and has pioneered this into something that is a much greater improvement.

One thing is clear: Montgomery county is far behind the times compared to Harris county when it comes to misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions. DA Brett Ligon is clearly on the wrong side of the moral argument, the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of public opinion. As long as we have a District Attorney spewing reefer madness ideas in a desperate attempt to score political points, unfortunately, the people of Montgomery County will continue to pay the price.

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