County DA to prosecute weed laws despite hemp bill passage

Despite a new state law allowing for the production, transportation and sale of hemp in Texas, Hays County’s top lawyer still intends to prosecute any and all marijuana cases going forward.

On July 11, Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau said in a release that his office will continue to prosecute marijuana possession and distribution cases brought forth by law enforcement. The DA’s office will “continue to deal with those cases as justice requires, as well as any additional charges under the new law.”

In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 1325 which could allow for the possession, production and distribution of industrial hemp crops and products. According to the DA, hemp is Cannabis sativa L., a plant containing less than 0.3 percent of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana.

However, production of hemp will remain illegal in the state until the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) submits, and receives approval of, a “state hemp plan” to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to the TDA website. The TDA, which will have oversight of hemp production in the state, said officials are awaiting USDA guidance before submission of a plan. USDA guidance is expected by fall 2019, according to the TDA website.

TDA officials anticipate starting the hemp growing application process by 2020.

Mau’s move drew criticism from county activists who cited law enforcement’s history with marijuana charges.

“Continued criminalization for low-level marijuana possession embodies Dumb on Crime, especially when it’s shamefully been our county’s leading arrest charge at least since 2012, and, meanwhile, numerous counties across the state – including our neighbor Travis to the north – have abandoned prosecutions altogether,” said Karen Muñoz, representative for Mano Amiga, a Hays County activist group.

Mano Amiga has a history of supporting cite-and-release and has rallied for criminal justice reform and, more recently, indigent criminal defense.

Currently, possession of marijuana is the leading arrest charge in Hays County and has been since 2013, according to documentation provided by the Hays County Judge’s office. The data does not provide information on 2012.

The county is also under scrutiny for the hefty cost associated with the jail, the jail’s expansion and exporting inmates to other prisons to alleviate overcrowding. Previous reports show Hays County spent upwards of $100,000 annually to ease overcrowding in the Hays County jail.

Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra and Chief of Staff Alex Villalobos have said they are hoping to increase cite-and-release practices in the county, especially for marijuana usage.

Kyle City Council Member Daphne Tenorio said she supports leniency on marijuana in response to Mau’s recent statement.

“Skyrocketing inmate housing costs and extreme court backlogs continue to create a challenge for Hays County. The pursuit of minor marijuana prosecutions only creates additional costs and time constraints,” Tenorio said.

She added that many Texas counties have already halted minor prosecutions of low-level marijuana offenses. Tenorio said she hopes to pursue cite-and-release provisions in Kyle, similar to rules under consideration in San Marcos.

Now that hemp is legalized, it is not expected to be added to the list of offenses. Costs associated with determining hemp’s THC level and legality, however, could slow progress.

Alex Villalobos, Hays County Chief of Staff, said the county will assess how it handles the new law.

“The County Judge’s office and Criminal Justice Committee is going to ask ourselves how we are going to do this in the most efficient and cost-effective way.”

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