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As greater numbers of Texas voters sour on harsh punishment for marijuana offenses, Austin voters will likely decide in May whether to effectively decriminalize the drug.
The ballot measure, pushed by the group Ground Game Texas, would forbid Austin police officers in most cases from ticketing or arresting people on low-level pot charges like possessing small amounts of the drug or related paraphernalia — unless the offenses are tied to more severe crimes. The city also would not pay to test substances suspected to be marijuana — a key step in substantiating drug charges.
Both practices have already been informally adopted in Austin, but advocates want to solidify them at the May ballot box.
“The primary effect is that it would make the decriminalization that exists in Austin today actually long term and would put the force of law behind it,” said Chris Harris, policy director at Austin Justice Coalition.
Austin law enforcement has met the idea with varying degrees of hostility and indifference in recent years. After the Austin City Council informally asked the Police Department in 2020 to halt citations and arrests for misdemeanor marijuana charges, then-Chief Brian Manley said the council doesn’t have the authority to tell him not to enforce state law. And officers still have latitude to decide whether to make arrests and write citations.
Chief Joseph Chacon has been mum on the current proposal. A representative for the Austin Police Department did not return a request for comment Monday.
And the Austin Police Association, the union that represents Austin officers, is staying out of the ballot fight — but not because it’s happy with the idea.
“We don't support it just because we feel like you should follow state law,” said Ken Casaday, head of the union. “They're skirting state law. But the thing is if this makes people in Austin happy, so be it.”
Austin’s city clerk verified Monday that the campaign collected enough signatures — at least 20,000 — to appear on the May ballot. The City Council still must vote to put the measure, which also would formally ban “no-knock” warrants, on the ballot.
But the measure faces one big obstacle: Although marijuana laws in Texas have loosened somewhat in recent years, the drug remains illegal at the state level.
Public support for harsh marijuana laws and prosecutors’ willingness to bring charges for minor offenses has waned in recent years.
The number of new charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession fell by 59% from 2016 to 2020, according to figures from the Texas Office of Court Administration, as prosecutors in the state’s major urban areas have increasingly deprioritized marijuana prosecutions.
Most Texas voters support decriminalizing marijuana in some form. Three-fifths of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last year.
That support cuts across partisan lines. Nearly three-fourths of Democrats and independents think marijuana should be legal. So do 43% of Republicans, a plurality of that group.
It’s against that backdrop that Ground Game Texas — a progressive group focused on issues of “workers, wages and weed” — plans to mount decriminalization campaigns in Killeen and Harker Heights. In San Marcos, another organization is gathering signatures for a similar ballot measure.
“This is a very popular issue, even among a lot of Republicans,” said Mike Siegel, political director for Ground Game Texas.
In the past, Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican leaders have sought to punish Austin for adopting left-leaning measures like cutting the city’s police spending or allowing homeless encampments in public.
But Abbott has signaled openness to some forms of marijuana decriminalization. In May, he signed an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program to include people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. And on Monday, he said he has little appetite for severe punishment for low-level marijuana offenses.
“One thing that I believe in, and I believe the state Legislature believes in, and that is prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others,” Abbott said Monday during a campaign stop in Edinburg. “Small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”
Despite Abbott’s assertion about lawmakers’ positions, bills aiming to decriminalize or legalize marijuana haven’t gotten through the Legislature in recent years. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a fellow Republican who heads the state Senate, has previously said he’s “strongly opposed” to loosening punishment for pot possession.
Part of Abbott’s play is not to alienate moderate voters in the November general election who believe in some degree of marijuana decriminalization, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. His Democratic opponent, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, has regularly backed marijuana legalization on the campaign trail.
“The governor doesn't want to be on the wrong side of public opinion on what is otherwise a popular issue towards decriminalizing and, for some, outright legalization for recreational use,” Rottinghaus said.
Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Jan. 11, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date of the election for which the ballot measure qualified. The election is in May, not November.