SA Pot Advocates Make Gains On Unprecedented Momentum

What just happened? Texas not going the way of Colorado on legalizing pot, but the Legislature actually seriously took up the debate. - Alex Ramirez
Alex Ramirez
What just happened? Texas not going the way of Colorado on legalizing pot, but the Legislature actually seriously took up the debate.

For decades, Texas politicians and pundits have preached that marijuana reform advocates are blowing smoke.

But there's a new normal — literally and figuratively — in the Lone Star State and in the Alamo City.

"Everybody feels the energy," said Marisa Laufer, a board member of the San Antonio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "It's great to watch this happen, that San Antonio is a part of it and it's not a fringe issue anymore."

Just a couple of weeks ago, SA NORML organized a march downtown to drum up support for marijuana reform. The public show of support for weed, which drew approximately 300 people, was a first for San Antonio.

Times do change.

Just a year ago, SA NORML was an organization that barely had a public presence.

That was because of internal disorganization and a lack of dedicated volunteers. But marijuana reform is a mainstream conversation now and 2015 has been a record session at the Texas legislature, as politicians seriously considered everything from legalization to medical marijuana.

It was enough to fire up Alamo City weed advocates, who are lobbying for change on the local and state levels.

Laufer said the group opened up a bank account and now members pay dues — anywhere from a $20 basic membership to $1,000 for a lifetime deal. As for the size of SA's chapter, Laufer said the board is still working to identify how many members exist. "We don't know how that's been handled in the past, so it's still a case of cleaning that up," Laufer said.

Jamie Balagia, a defense attorney popularly known as the "DWI Dude" and for running for attorney general last year (he resoundingly lost) is interim executive director and there's now a board of directors. The group is also working on outreach, particularly online with a website and by ramping up its social media presence.

"We're getting help from the Austin NORML Chapter," said Laufer. "We've been getting the support we needed to help get this chapter in a better position."

'Cite And Release'

Aside from organizational grunt work, Laufer said SA NORML has also set out new goals, including increasing membership and lobbying Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas "Nico" LaHood to implement a little known Texas law called "cite and release."

This rule allows police officers to issue citations to people suspected of Class B misdemeanors, such as possessing small amounts of pot, rather than arresting them.

The accused would be expected to answer to allegations at a scheduled court appearance, skipping being booked, arrested and posting bond.

Police previously told the San Antonio Current that they wouldn't use the law without a directive from the DA's office.

Just days before beating former DA Susan Reed in last year's election, LaHood told the Current that he would explore implementing the law in Bexar County.

But Laufer has her doubts. She has been trying to schedule a meeting with LaHood to talk about implementation but hasn't been able to speak with him. She did however, snag some time with a representative in LaHood's office who promised the DA was not ignoring her.

"He's not ready to comment or maybe he's just buying time and they say they want to get back to us, but we don't think he has made a decision," Laufer said.

LaHood's top deputy, Woody Halstead, told the Current that the DA's office is still investigating whether the cite-and-release law would effectively improve Bexar County's judicial system.

"We have talked a little bit with Sheriff (Susan) Parmerleau and Chief (Anthony) Treviño about whether or not we want to move that direction," Halstead said.

But there are logistical issues, including whether people will show up to court and how to determine the identity of suspects when they show up for court, according to Halstead.

"Most people go through the booking process and are finger-printed so we can ensure the person is the right person," Halstead said. "With cite and release, we have to work out logistical issues with that because we don't want to have an issue later on."

But even then, Halstead said Bexar County's jail has a low number of people accused of Class B misdemeanors because most people go through booking and are released on a personal recognizance bond after a judge magistrates them, which generally takes a few hours.

"It may not be effective because of the low number of offenders," Halstead said.

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