The city of Austin is considering whether to effectively end arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The potential change comes in response to a state law passed in 2019 that legalized the production and possession of hemp.
Marijuana and hemp are related, though hemp lacks the amount of THC found in marijuana that’s required to get a user high. To determine whether the THC in a sample is above the threshold established by the Legislature, law enforcement must perform expensive tests. That’s led some jurisdictions to stop arresting people for possession of a substance they don’t have the resources to test. Other jurisdictions, including Bexar County, have decided to purchase new testing equipment
On Jan. 23, the Austin City Council will vote on whether to buy lab equipment or effectively tell police to stop making arrests for low-level pot possession.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar says city resources would be better managed by not acquiring marijuana testing equipment.
“Marijuana charges can derail people’s lives,” he says. “You can lose your eligibility for student financial aid. People have lost their jobs. People can even get deported. And so this is about taking care of people.”
Casar says pursuing low-level marijuana crimes is a waste of resources, regardless of the need for lab equipment that would verify the THC content of a seized sample.
“Now that we’re being asked by the Legislature, ‘Do you want to add even more resources for even more complicated testing in order to do the wrong thing?’ why would we do that?” he says.
Casar wants the city to work toward fixing its crime lab’s problems, rather than prioritizing testing of marijuana. Lab work is crucial to solving sexual assault cases, for example, but Austin’s crime lab has had difficulty testing and keeping track of DNA evidence in recent years.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.