The Trib takes a long look.
The fight in several Texas cities to decriminalize marijuana has entered a new phase, as some city leaders have rebuffed voter-approved rules that largely end criminal enforcement against having small amounts of the substance.
Last month, residents in Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights overwhelmingly approved ballot measures that sought to ban arrests and citations for carrying less than 4 ounces of marijuana in most instances. They also approved new rules blocking cities from funding THC concentration tests, plus removing marijuana smell as a probable cause for search and seizure in most cases.
Winning over voters was just half the battle.
Since then, organizers behind the ballot questions in some cities have clashed with their city and county leaders who are tasked with putting the new laws in place, as well as law enforcement. Those officials have said the effort violates state law and hinders police officers.
The battle has been the toughest in Harker Heights, a town of 33,000 about 55 miles southwest of Waco. Despite the proposition winning more than 60% of the votes, the City Council decided to repeal the ordinance just two weeks later. City Manager David Mitchell said in a subsequent letter that the decision to decriminalize should be left to the state.
For Harker Heights residents who supported decriminalizing marijuana, the repeal is a stinging show of disrespect for their exercise of democracy.
“I don’t do any kind of drugs nor does my wife, but we’re here for the vote,” said Brian Burt, who casted his ballot for the proposition.
“A vote is a vote,” Alexandra Burt chimed in. “We are also aware that minorities disproportionately take the brunt of the law, so it is time for that proposition to go through.”
To force the City Council’s hand, the Burts and hundreds of other residents backed a new petition by Ground Game Texas, a progressive group that co-led the decriminalization campaign, to put the council’s decision to repeal on the May ballot and revive the ordinance in the meantime.
Julie Oliver, the group’s executive director, said the council’s decision to revoke a popular choice by voters has backfired.
“Shutting down someone’s vote is ill-advised, so this has really brought the community together,” she said.
Organizers across the state facing similar pushback also say they would prefer the Texas Legislature to pass laws that would decriminalize or even legalize marijuana — though they acknowledge how unlikely that is given the state’s conservative power structure.
“We can all see the way that this country is heading, state by state, but it looks like Texas is going to be one of the last,” said Deb Armintor, a Decriminalize Denton organizer and a former City Council member who championed decriminalization during her two terms. “There’s no point in cities waiting.”
Several cities and towns have since followed. Elgin, a city of about 10,500 people that sits just east of Austin, voted to decriminalize by almost 75%. Its council has made the least amount of noise in putting the ordinance in place.
Other city and county officials, however, have raised concerns about a statute from the Texas Local Government Code that says municipal bodies like city councils and police departments “may not adopt a policy under which the entity will not fully enforce laws relating to drugs.”
Last month, Republican Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza cited it when asking the police chief of Killeen, where close to 70% of voters favored decriminalization, to reverse his order telling officers to follow the vote. Following a pause, Killeen City Council approved the ordinance on Dec. 6 after removing the section banning officers from using marijuana smell as probable cause for search and seizure.
“The amendment was not preferable but now our residents do not have to fear an arrest that will affect their employment opportunities, education opportunities and housing opportunities,” said Louie Minor, a Bell County commissioner-elect who worked on both the Killeen and Harker Heights campaigns.
More recently, Republican Hays County Criminal District Attorney Wes Mau requested an attorney general opinion about the ordinance’s enforceability over similar questions. Mano Amiga — the group co-leading the effort in San Marcos — immediately pushed back, as voters had passed the proposition by almost 82% and the City Council already approved it in November.
Mau said he has “no plans to file a lawsuit” in his last month of office. His Democratic successor Kelly Higgins supports decriminalization.
“The Attorney General cannot overturn the referendum, nor am I asking him to,” Mau said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “But an opinion as to whether the ordinance is enforceable may be helpful to the City moving forward.”
In the North Texas suburb of Denton, where voters approved decriminalization by more than 70%, the City Council has also certified the initiative, thus enacting the ordinance. But organizers worry about its enforcement because City Manager Sara Hensley has opposed implementing parts of it due to similar issues. Organizers responded in November with a memo arguing that Hensley doesn’t have policymaking authority and that the city has discretion to enact policies conserving scarce resources.
See here and here for some background. I take the concerns of the opponents seriously, even as I would have voted for these measures myself. I expect the Legislature will respond, most likely in a disproportionate matter, to these referenda if they are not at least modified by those city councils. I also think this is a fight worth having, in the courts as well as at the ballot box. There really is a significant disconnect between public opinion and legislative action on this matter. So far, too many people who disagree with the Republicans in general and the Lege/Greg Abbott/Dan Patrick in particular have nonetheless voted for them, or not shown up to vote against them. The point here is to try to change some minds of the former and motivate more of the latter. At the very least, that means seeing this through, whatever happens along the way. I do think the pro-decriminalization side will eventually prevail, but who knows how long that may take. Letting up won’t make it happen any sooner.