Fort Worth should stop arrests for small amounts of marijuana

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There’s been confusion recently about marijuana policy in Fort Worth, thanks to a lack of precision. But it’s also created an opportunity to talk about sensible steps the city should take.

District 8 City Council member Chris Nettles asked city staff to brief the council about policy on marijuana arrests. These informal reports are primarily informational, but they often set the stage for changes. A local TV station jumped the gun, though, reporting that the city was considering no longer arresting people on a charge of possessing less than 4 ounces of the drug. That prompted a sharp correction from Mayor Mattie Parker and, predictably, a Twitter dust-up with Nettles.

If it doesn’t get bogged down in politics, this is a chance for the city to move cautiously toward decriminalization without going too far, too fast, as many cities around the nation clearly have. Fort Worth police can currently issue a court summons for charges of possessing small amounts of the drug, up to 2 ounces, rather than make an arrest. But they rarely do; a Nettles aide said that in 2022, it was fewer than 10% of those charged with possession.

The policy is referred to as “cite and release,” but it’s important to note what that means: A person must appear before a court for booking. This should become the standard for 2 ounces or less of marijuana. Other Tarrant County cities should jump on board, too.

The Tarrant County Jail is strained. Staffing is a constant issue, as it is in so much of law enforcement. Let’s reserve Sheriff’s Office resources for violent criminals and other serious offenders. If a suspect’s only crime is having a small amount of pot, they need not make a trip to the jail.

Nettles deserves credit for raising the issue, and he correctly notes that Black and Hispanic residents are disproportionately affected by marijuana laws. But his proposal for a 4-ounce threshold would be too lenient. That’s a relatively large amount of pot. Two ounces would be a better standard.

City Council member Chris Nettles speaking at Polytechnic High School in 2022.
City Council member Chris Nettles speaking at Polytechnic High School in 2022. David Silva Ramirez Fort Worth Star-Telegram

It’ll require making sure police officers are equipped to weigh drugs on the spot and properly trained. And yes, it’s one more thing for cops to work through. But it’s worth it.

It’s an interesting time in the country’s perpetual marijuana debate. Decriminalization and even outright legalization have been on the march. In 2022, President Joe Biden announced pardons for thousands of simple-possession cases and prodded federal regulators to reconsider the classification of marijuana, which is currently listed among the most dangerous and potent drugs.

Oklahoma is a fascinating case. The state allowed for broad medical use of marijuana in 2018. The law was crafted in such a way that few limits existed on prescriptions or the dispensary business. Soon, the state was awash in legal pot.

But when voters were asked this month if they wanted to formally legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, they resoundingly said no, the fourth state to do so in recent months. Perhaps they figured that it was easy enough to get, so why change the law? But many probably had concerns about its sudden widespread use.

Texas is further behind the curve. There will be no legalization for recreational use anytime soon. But there are new openings for more medical allowances. Fort Worth Rep. Stephanie Klick, a conservative Republican, is pushing to add conditions such as chronic pain to the list for which doctors can prescribe marijana and to increase the strength of cannabis available to patients. Some Texas cities, including Denton, have tried to defy state law on the matter. That’s not the right approach, as Parker noted. A readily available first step, stopping arrests and issuing summons, is available.

Fort Worth should do it, but it needs a serious — and precise — discussion on the matter. And that doesn’t mean snapping on Twitter.

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Editorials are the positions of the Editorial Board, which serves as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s institutional voice. The members of the board are: Cynthia M. Allen, columnist; Steve Coffman, editor and president; Bud Kennedy, columnist; Ryan J. Rusak, opinion editor; and Nicole Russell, editorial writer and columnist. Most editorials are written by Rusak or Russell. Editorials are unsigned because they represent the board’s consensus positions, not the views of individual writers.

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