By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Houston and the county that contains the fourth most-populous U.S. city will decriminalize low-level marijuana possession, with officials saying on Thursday that throwing people in jail for having small amounts of pot has "no tangible public safety benefit."
The policy, which takes effect March 1, means in most circumstances there will be no jail, no tickets, no court appearances and no criminal record for possession of an ounce or two of marijuana in the city and its surrounding county, home to about 4.5 million people.
More than two dozen U.S. states have legalized some form of marijuana for medical or recreational use, but the drug remains illegal at the federal level and in Texas.
The new "Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program" for Harris County applies to people 17 and older facing no additional charges other than misdemeanor marijuana possession, county and city law enforcement officials said in a statement.
“Harris County has spent more than $200 million in the past decade on more than 100,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession,” District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat who took office this year, said in a statement.
She added that the effort "has deprived neighborhoods of officers' time that could be spent patrolling communities; jail beds that could be used for violent criminals... and judicial court time that should be spent bringing serious criminals to justice.”
The Texas Attorney General's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
The move is also aimed at preventing people from being denied education, employment and housing opportunities due to having a criminal record for marijuana possession.
A main provision is for those caught with low-level possession to complete a four-hour course on decision-making at a cost of $150, which will be waived for the indigent. If people eligible for the program do not want to participate, they will be taken to jail and charged with possession.
The county and Houston will give police officers discretion to bring criminal charges. Individuals under court supervision through bond, probation, or deferred adjudication are not eligible since they have agreements not to violate the law, the county and city said.
Ogg said the move falls under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures that says it is the duty of a district attorney "not to convict, but to see that justice is done."
"With limited resources, we need to be efficient, smart and thoughtful on fighting crime," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a statement.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Dan Grebler)