Days after the Texas House of Representatives passed a marijuana decriminalization bill that is now pending in the Senate, voters in two cities in the state will head to the polls on Saturday to decide on two related local ballot measures.
San Antonio voters will consider a broad justice-reform initiative that includes provisions to decriminalize cannabis, and Harker Heights residents will have the chance to overturn their local government’s repeal of an earlier decriminalization measure they passed.
The San Antonio proposal asks voters if they support blocking police from making arrests or issuing citations for low-level marijuana possession, preventing the enforcement of abortion restriction laws, banning no-knock warrants and making other reforms.
Advocates with Ground Game Texas, the organization that spearheaded the ballot initiative, turned in more than 37,000 signatures to qualify it in January.
The text of the measure says that “it is the policy of the City of San Antonio to use its available resources and authority to accomplish three goals of paramount importance: first, to reduce the City’s contribution to mass incarceration; second, to mitigate racially discriminatory law enforcement practices; and third, to save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
The cannabis section of the initiative stipulates that “San Antonio police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses,” with limited exceptions.
It also says that police can’t “consider the odor of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for any search or seizure.”
“No City funds or personnel shall be used to request, conduct, or obtain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) testing of any cannabis-related substance to determine whether the substance meets the legal definition of marijuana under state law,” it continues.
It would also decriminalize possession of synthetic cannabinoids by requiring police to issue a ticket or citation, rather than arrest, for possessing up to four ounces of the substance.
Additionally, the measure would prevent law enforcement in the state’s second-most populous city from criminalizing abortion, executing no-knock warrants and using chokeholds against suspects.
Under the proposal, the city would further be required to appoint a “Justice Director” to fulfill three policy priorities: reduce mass incarceration, mitigate racial disparities in law enforcement practices and “save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
The Harker Heights measure is somewhat more convoluted, as voters already approved decriminalization at the ballot last November. But because the City Council repealed the ordinance shortly after the vote over concerns it conflicted with state law, activists collected signatures for another initiative to repeal the repeal that will be decided on Saturday.
Proposition A asks: “Shall the ordinance repealing Chapter 133, ‘Marijuana Enforcement,’ of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Harker Heights be approved?”
Voters who want to overrule the local lawmakers and re-enact decriminalization will need to vote “no” on the question.
Ground Game Texas has secured a number of reform victories in recent elections.
While Harker Heights was the only city of the bunch to have repealed the initiative, advocates have faced issues in other jurisdictions where voters approved decriminalization.
For example, the Killeen City Council temporarily paused implementation of the local voter-approved ordinance, arguing that there were legal concerns that lawmakers needed to sort through before giving it their approval, which they eventually did.
In Denton, local officials didn’t pursue an outright repeal of the cannabis measure that voters approved there, but they did initially challenge key provisions, saying that the city wasn’t authorized to direct police to make the prescribed policy changes. However, they later accepted the reform.
Elgin and San Marcos also passed decriminalization last year, without experiencing the same complications from local government.
Austin voters, meanwhile, strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure last May.
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While there’s been a surge of local action on marijuana issues under home rule laws in Texas over recent years, statewide reform has generally failed in the conservative legislature.
Advocates are closely watching to see what, if anything, the Texas Senate does with a bill to decriminalize marijuana statewide that the House passed last month.
The House has already passed similar cannabis decriminalization proposals during the past two legislative sessions, in 2021 and 2019. But so far the proposals have consistently stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the chamber.
Also last month, the House passed a bill to allow medical marijuana as an opioid alternative for people with chronic pain and also replace the state’s THC limit, sending the legislation to the Senate for consideration.
Nearly three in four Texas voters (72 percent) support decriminalizing marijuana, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll in December. More than half (55 percent), meanwhile, said they’re in favor of broader legalization. Seventeen percent said it shouldn’t be legal at all.
A more recent survey from the same institution similarly showed that a majority of Texas voters feel that the state’s marijuana laws should be “less strict.”
Texas lawmakers also recently filed a series of new bills aimed at promoting and expanding psychedelics research in the state.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.