We’ll see how this goes. I suspect the measure will pass, but I’m not sure it will be allowed to take effect.
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.
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.
As the story notes, there’s an effort by Ground Game Texas to put a similar measure on the ballot in San Marcos. The City Council in Denton recently voted down an ordinance to do the same there, a move that perhaps validates this approach. The Austin police union, which has been resistant to the earlier efforts to decriminalize pot, is staying out of this election, but who knows what they might do afterward.
So what happens if this passes, as I expect it will? One obvious possibility is legal action to require the enforcement of the state laws. I’m sure there’s someone who’d be willing to be the plaintiff in such a filing, and no one has to encourage Ken Paxton to swing a bat in Austin’s direction. Legislative action is also possible – again, there’s nothing a Republican likes more these days than filing a bill to stop a city from doing something that legislator doesn’t approve of. A complicating factor in all this is that Greg Abbott is mumbling a few words in favor of being less harsh about pot, likely in recognition of the polling on this issue and Beto’s stronger pro-pot stance. I don’t know how much that complicates things for the keep-pot-criminal crowd, but it’s another dimension. I don’t know which way this will go, but it all starts with the measure being passed, and I feel pretty confident about that.