Four months after a majority of voters approved Proposition B, Denton’s misdemeanor marijuana decriminalization ordinance continues to be a difficult issue for city staff to implement completely, according to City Manager Sara Hensley on Tuesday.
Hensley, who gave a presentation to the Denton City Council, said that since Nov. 1 — about a week before Denton voters passed Prop B — 52 citations and/or arrests were made by Denton police for misdemeanor marijuana possession or paraphernalia related to marijuana.
Of those 52 cases, Hensley pointed out that 23 arrests were for primary violations other than marijuana possession. Those violations include issues such as warrants, criminal trespass or public intoxication.
Hensley said that certain parts of the ordinance simply couldn’t be implemented because it violates state and federal law.
“I recognize the voters have spoken,” Hensley told council members Tuesday afternoon. “I understand that, but we don’t have the authority.”
Nick Stevens, a board member of the advocacy group Decriminalize Denton, said later Tuesday evening at the City Council meeting that what some council members and city staff are saying publicly is different than what they claimed privately.
Stevens also said the ordinance has become a political issue instead of a nonpartisan one, as indicated by the overwhelming majority of voters who approved the measure in November. He wondered why the city didn’t provide the demographic breakdown of those citations during Hensley’s presentation because historically, minorities have been unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
“The disappointing part — outside of the breaking local law — is not giving the demographics,” Stevens told the Denton Record-Chronicle.
The Record-Chronicle requested demographic information on the citations from the Denton police Tuesday afternoon.
“All of the information the City has to provide will be included in the City Manager’s presentation today to City Council,” the Denton Police Department media relations team said in an email Tuesday. “We do not have any additional information prior to them receiving that work session report.”
At Tuesday’s Denton City Council work session, Police Chief Doug Shoemaker was also on hand during Hensley’s presentation to answer questions and reassured council members that misdemeanor amounts of marijuana would continue to be a low priority for police. He also reaffirmed that the odor of marijuana wasn’t initiating probable cause and search and seizure issues, though it was part of the process in some cases.
Denton Municipal Judge Tyler Atkinson discussed the deferred adjudication process that is available to people who receive misdemeanor marijuana charges and how the municipal court does its best to work with offenders by lowering fines, offering community service and other opportunities.
Atkinson also mentioned that the court sends text messages to people to let them know about the process and how to expunge their records. The videos are also posted on YouTube.
“We’re the only city in the whole state that sends them out and [posts them] online,” Atkinson said.
After Hensley’s presentation, council member Jesse Davis mentioned that it has been an all-or-nothing-type situation with the decriminalization issue and suggested finding a “middle ground” by implementing parts of the ordinance that doesn’t violate state law.
In Hensley’s presentation, she pointed out that the City Council does have the discretion to amend the budget in regards to how city funds are spent.
For example, the Proposition B ordinance states no city funds will be used for THC testing of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. But, it requires a council approval and not a voter one under the city charter, as Mayor Pro Tem Brian Beck pointed out in early December when he tried to get his fellow council members to pass a duplicate ordinance of Proposition B to give it the budgetary teeth it needed.
“I’m willing to talk about what we have in our authority to do,” Davis said regarding the budget and which part of the ordinance can be implemented. “It is fair. It is not fair for the voters to tell us to break the law. That is nonsense and not our job.”
Beck and fellow council members Vicki Byrd and Brandon Chase McGee encouraged city staff and other council members to follow the will of the voters and allow the courts to decide what can and can’t be implemented.
“I think we need to fully implement it and if the state slaps our hands back, we know where we are,” McGee said. “We’re answerable to the people. None of us got 70% of the votes. None of us. How often do we see that 70% pass anywhere? There is no reason not to do it, so let’s do it.”
A video of how to expunge one’s record in Denton is embedded in the story. I found this to be fascinating, and quite different from the experiences in Bell County and Hays County, not to mention the pre-vote conflicts in San Antonio. All of that was discussed in the story as well, so go read the rest. There is a legitimate question about what a City Council is supposed to do with a voter-passed ordinance that one can reasonably read to be in violation of state law, at least in part. The bigger issue here remains the fact that state and federal law are much stricter about marijuana than the public wants them to be. Cities can only nibble around the edges of that, and at their own peril in a state like Texas. The problem needs to be resolved at a higher level, and that’s a much more difficult thing to do.