People caught holding small amounts of cannabis in Harris County, Texas will no longer be heading to the hoosegow, despite possession of the plant still being illegal in the Lone Star state.
Under the new “cite-and-release” policy, police will instead offer four-hour drug education classes to anybody found with less than than 113 grams (4 ounces). The policy, which kicked in March 1, means in most cases there will be no jail, tickets, court appearances or criminal records.
More than two dozen U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, but it remains illegal at the federal level and in Texas.
Harris County includes Houston, the fourth-most populous city in the U.S., with approximately 4.5 million residents.
Authorities will still arrest and prosecute cases when they find pot in school zones or through unrelated criminal investigations, but most people won’t get booked into jail or receive a criminal record if long they complete the course. The classes cost $150, and financial aid will be available to people unable to pay.
Officials say the new approach will save $26 million annually by lifting costs related to law enforcement, incarceration and the court system.
The change comes as newly elected officials in Harris County usher in a wider criminal justice reform agenda. District Attorney Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, both Democrats, campaigned on overhauling ineffective tough-on-crime policies and won their elections by substantial margins last November.