Austin police still enforcing marijuana possession, although cases being dismissed

Since the hemp legalization law took effect in June, the Travis County district and county attorneys have been dismissing marijuana cases. However, Austin police said that hasn't changed their policies of citing or arresting people for possession of the drug. 

“Marijuana is still illegal,” said Assistant Chief Troy Gay with the Austin Police Department. 

The confusion started when the Texas legislature legalized hemp in June, changing the definition of marijuana to a part of the cannabis plant with more than .3 percent THC. Travis County prosecutors said that means they must prove marijuana's THC content in court, that’s something they cannot currently do because that kind of testing equipment is not available. “We haven't yet had a case where the law enforcement agency has brought us the testing results,” said Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.  

Moore’s office has dismissed 96 felony marijuana cases since the hemp law took effect. 

“Technically they are dismissed, so there's no warrant out there, no obligation on the person to appear in court,” Moore said.  

However, because the statute of limitations on marijuana possession is two years, those cases can be refiled once testing equipment is in place. “Hopefully we’ll get some word within the next few months or we’ll come up with the processes that all the labs will be able to test for the quantification of THC,” said Gay. 

In the meantime, Austin police said they are still doing what they've always done. “Whether you go to jail or whether you get a cite and release, the officer takes custody of the drug. That drug then gets turned in to our evidence and then it is held there for either testing or for court purposes as evidence,” Gay said. 

“We're just in a weird place because they enforce the law, but we've got to go prove the case,” said Moore.  

86 times since June, Austin police officers have arrested somebody in possession of marijuana. 

“At the felony level, I do not consider it a waste of time,” Moore said.  

“Over 50% of the possession of marijuana charges, it's not a single charge,” said Gay. 

The district attorney’s office is working with police to prioritize felony cases involving violence. “So, every case has to be looked at on its own, but our focus is on the public safety aspect because we have been very concerned about the number of shootings that involve marijuana dealing,” said Moore. 

However, there is still one question no one can answer. “Will it just be too much of a burden on the criminal justice system and too costly to move forward with some minor cases? So, we really don’t know just yet,” Gay said. 

Earlier this month, Austin City Council spoke to police about whether citing someone for misdemeanor possession charges was a waste of resources, but APD said council really has no say over that as possession of marijuana is enforced as a state and federal law.

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