EL PASO, Texas - El Paso City Manager Tommy Gonzalez has signed an agreement with the County of El Paso that will allow the City to participate in the First Chance Program.
The program allows people who are solely caught with four ounces or less of marijuana, and have no prior criminal record, to carry out eight hours of community service and pay a fine instead of getting arrested and being charged.
City Representative Henry Rivera, a former police officer, has his doubts about the program.
"If they are adults, which we are really concerned with, they should already know what is right and wrong. State law is state law. No one has rewritten the law to say marijuana is legal just yet," Rivera said.
Rivera asked El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza to make a presentation before Council explaining how the program would work.
Supporters, like City Representatives Cassandra Hernandez-Brown and Alexsandra Annello, said the move could help the police department, currently facing financial struggles.
"We are in dire need of police officers, and if we can allocate our police officers to focus on high priority calls, it would mean that we would have better response times," Hernandez-Brown said.
Rivera had wanted to see a change to the role the city's police department would play in the program.
"You need to take these people down to the station and do due process as far as fingerprints, mug shots and information," Rivera said.
"We are not going to do that. That is the whole point," Esparza said. "If we are going to do that, we might as well arrest them."
El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen told Council he is looking at the program from an "efficiency point of view." Allen further stated, "I am not for any legalization or legitimization of marijuana by any stretch of the imagination."
The police chief explained it is time-consuming and burdensome to have a police officer spend a large portion of his or her shift booking someone into jail on "an arrest that has no end result of a conviction because of jury nullification." Allen reassured Council the City's police officers will still have the discretion to make an arrest.
Ron Martin, the president of the union that represents El Paso police officers, asked Council to be "careful about decriminalizing marijuana."
"Why are we doing this? Manpower, money and places in the County jail. We don't have the officers in the street. This is why we're doing this. Let's cut the corner. We don't have the officers that we need so let's just get them out," Martin said.
City Representative Cissy Lizarraga told Council, that under the program, many parents will "be grateful their children's permanent records will not be tainted by youthful mistakes."
Lizarraga said Allen and Esparza will reevaluate the program after 90 days. Council took no vote on supporting the County's program because the city manager had already signed an agreement.