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New El Paso County program would eliminate jail time, record for new marijuana offenders

Photo of marijuana courtesy El Paso NORML.

El Paso County could be letting first time marijuana offenders off the hook a little easier, if a proposal is passed on Monday. The El Paso County Commissioners will most likely give initial approval for the “First Chance Program” in a vote on Monday.

The program allows someone caught with a small amount of marijuana for the first time to avoid jail and a criminal record.

Offenders would enter the program and avoid any arrest or criminal charge. It's a joint effort by the El Paso County District Attorney's Office and local law enforcement.

"Regardless of whatever your opinions are on marijuana, the reality is high school students are trying marijuana at a rate higher than that of cigarettes,” El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez said.

"I think it's wonderful. I think first time offenders shouldn't be punished excessively which is going to screw up their lives,” said a neighbor who lives in West El Paso who did not want to give his name.

"I think that the resources of the police department and sheriff's department can be better used chasing more criminal type of behavior,” said West El Paso resident George Sugawa said. "One of the advantages of being young is you get to make mistakes."

Perez said he will vote in favor of the program.

"If they just learn from that one mistake and move on, and if they're given that second opportunity, when it comes time for college, when it comes time for school,” Perez said.

Perez said it is a lot like the deferred adjudication program that's offered to first time DWI offenders.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office said it is in full support of this proposal.

“This program will provide an educational opportunity to first time offenders with the intent to prevent their future use of illegal drugs; it will eliminate minor drug convictions that could have long lasting negative effects on their ability to pursue certain types of employment and higher education opportunities,” said Sheriff Wiles in a statement. “Additionally, it will result in a savings to taxpayers by freeing up police officers and deputies to handle more important law enforcement duties, prevent unnecessary bookings into the county jail, and prevent a long and costly court process.”

Both Wiles and Perez agree that this will save taxpayers money.

"Between the arrest step, and the booking step, and the jail step, then the court step, there's a lot of taxpayer resources that are wasted,” Perez explained.

This program is not decriminalization, though. Perez said only the state can decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, and Texas has not passed any legislation doing so in the recent session.

"To me, weed is pretty harmless. I think alcohol is worse and it's legal,” the neighbor said.

CBS4 spent about 45 minutes talking to El Pasoans in Central and West El Paso on Sunday. We couldn't find anyone who thought this proposal was a bad idea.

The vote will take place at the El Paso County Commissioner’s Court meeting Monday.

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