Low-level marijuana offenders can now avoid charges with Travis County class

FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016 file photo, a marijuana joint is rolled in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016 file photo, a marijuana joint is rolled in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Beginning in January, it will be easier to avoid criminal charges if caught with a small amount of marijuana in Travis County.

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved a proposal Tuesday to allow low-level offenders to take a four-hour marijuana class rather than going through the court system.

First-time offenders who are cited with 2 ounces or less of the drug, will have the option to either go through the criminal justice system the traditional way or pay $45 to take the course within 60 days.

Assistant County Attorney Dan Hamre says it’s a way to ease some of the burden on the county’s clogged court system while allowing low-level offenders an affordable second chance at not having a criminal record. According to Hamre, the County Attorney’s Office files more than 3,000 marijuana cases a year, the vast majority of which are minor possession cases.

Being caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

The four-hour marijuana classes will be held by Travis County’s Counseling and Education Services. Instructors will focus on marijuana laws, myths and misconceptions, the effect of marijuana on the brain, as well as the role marijuana can play in addiction.

“We talk about the things that are science-based that we know, things like impact on driving ability, the potential impact on psychosis and some mental health issues, and we talk about the impact on memory and IQ,” said Travis County Counseling and Education Services Social Service Coordinator Marc Pitzer.

Pitzer and several other instructors will teach the course, which will also focus on the role marijuana can play in addiction.

“We’re hoping if they’re in a position where they’re not thinking at all about a substance being a problem, maybe they’re at least now contemplating the issue and saying, ‘Well, what is the role of marijuana in my life, and is it possibly problematic?'” Pitzer said. “If we can at least get them to have that inner dialogue, I think we’ve made some progress.”

First-time offenders also won’t have to face the consequences of a misdemeanor drug charge on their record when applying for job or education opportunities.

“The county benefits from, number one: the courts not being congested. Number two: clients are less likely to reoffend, and the client wins, because they’ve got a better opportunity moving forward with their future,” Pitzer said.

The four-hour class is a one-time offer. Travis County already offers a similar eight-hour course that will be available to repeat offenders or people with heavier charges. However, those offenders still have to go through the court process and a lengthier, costlier process to get their record expunged.

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