El Paso mayor breaks tie over marijuana test funding to police for low-level cases

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A man smokes a joint during a demonstration for the decriminalization of cannabis. (Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — In a split vote, Mayor Oscar Leeser broke a tie deciding whether the city of El Paso’s law enforcement could use 2022 funds to test for cannabis in low-level possession cases.

The decision came during City Council’s Tuesday meeting where elected officials adopted the city’s $1 billion budget including a $72,000 request from the El Paso Police Department for marijuana testing. A motion was made by District 3 city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez to approve the funds but restrict testing from being used over misdemeanor amounts or low-level cases.

The City Council voted 4-4 with city Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Cassandra Hernandez, Cissy Lizarraga and Peter Svarzbein voting in favor of approving the funds but only for high-level cases.

City Reps. Joe Molinar, Henry Rivera, Claudia Rodriguez, Isabel Salcido and Mayor Oscar Leeser voted the against the motion allowing police to test for marijuana in low-level cases.

The City Council’s decision on Tuesday comes as “cite and release,” continues to be implemented. The program is a directive for police to issue citations or warnings for low-level offenses instead of arrests.

Hernandez, who represents East Central El Paso, said much of the Southwest, including the states of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico had already loosened marijuana laws. And, that even the Texas Department of Public Safety had adopted a policy to not test for small amounts of marijuana in low-level cases.

The District 3 representative said District Attorney Yvonne Rosales had attended a recent public meeting with constituents who asked her about her stance on prosecution of low-level marijuana charges. Rosales made a statement signaling her office would not take on low-level cases.

Hernandez said Rosales made a statement to her constituents that signaled the district attorney’s office under her administration would not pursue low-level possession charges. District 2 city Rep. Alexsandra Annello also said Rosales had made the statement to constituents during the meeting.

“One statement that really resonated with me, her statement, and not to put words into her (Rosales) mouth but to rephrase her statements, were that, their priority was to focus on criminal and high-level possession charges,” Hernandez said. “Those were the cases that they would be looking at and pursuing. And, the other thing was that she had mentioned that it really wasn’t a great use of tax-payer dollars whether that be at the county level or at the city level to focus our efforts on small misdemeanor, low-level possession charges.”

KTSM 9 News reached out to the District Attorney’s Office for clarification on whether Rosales’ stance was accurately represented during the council meeting.

A spokesman for the district attorney declined to provide a clarification.

“We have previously released a statement on this and will not be doing so again,” he said. “Please know that we will be monitoring what your station reports.”

The spokesman continued “I appreciate you contacting me, however there is nothing for us to release publicly at this time.”

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the city’s police department received a letter from the DA’s office on May 10 saying that lab results for marijuana cases were required to distinguish marijuana from other substances like hemp. State definitions of marijuana have changed as state lawmakers have made changes to the law to legalize hemp.

Items containing more than .3 percent THC, which causes a high, are what remain illegal in the state of Texas.

“As you are aware, the inclusion of hemp in the Texas Agricultural Code has introduced a new layer to the evidentiary requirements needed to prosecute substances prohibited under the Texas Controlled Substances Act,” the May 10 letter reads. “In light of this change, the El Paso District Attorney’s Office is requesting that items be tested for prohibited levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol above the allowable limits now authorized by statue for the Hemp industry.

“Please keep in mind the changing formulation of products that are showing in El Paso via interstate transit,” the letter says.

Read the District Attorney’s letter here:

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