Some local lawmakers undermining voter-approved marijuana decriminalization measures

Voters in several Texas cities passed decriminalization ordinances last month, leaving some local officials concerned about violating state law.

By David Brown & Terry GutierrezDecember 9, 2022 12:47 pm,

In November, voters in several Texas cities passed marijuana decriminalization ordinances – a sign of the times, many said, since laws over pot have relaxed in many states nationwide.

That hasn’t been the case when it comes to Texas state laws, which have moved toward allowing medical use in specific circumstances. But marijuana remains very much illegal for the most part in Texas.

That tension between state law and these local ordinances has led some local lawmakers to undermine voter-approved decriminalization measures. Katharine Neill Harris, the Glassell fellow in drug policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute, joined the Texas Standard to share more about what’s happening in Harker Heights, Killeen and elsewhere in the state.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s talk about what’s going on in places like San Marcos, Denton, Elgin, Killeen and Harker Heights – all voted to reduce criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession, but what we’re hearing is that in a lot of these places, officials haven’t implemented those changes to local law. What’s going on?

Katharine Neill Harris: Yes, so I think right now some of the city councils have kind of put a pause on things and said that they want to look at the legal issues around implementation. There’s a lot of concern from the cities about, you know, possible violations of state law, so there is that going on. The two main ones that we’re watching in terms of resistance from city councils are Harker Heights and Killeen. Harker Heights has basically just voted – the city council voted to repeal the voter-approved initiative completely, and in Killeen, they did just put it through with some amendments.

I want to talk about what that means for people who fought pretty hard for these ordinances. Are we looking at potential legal challenges here?

Certainly I think that the voters are very frustrated with this, as well as the Ground Game Texas, which is the organization that helped to organize the initiatives. I think it makes people feel like their vote didn’t matter, especially when you look at the numbers – you know, in some cases, 70%; I think the lowest by which it passed was 64%. So these are clearly highly supported in these areas, and so I think there’s just frustration that their leaders aren’t following what the voters have asked for.

I think some municipal leaders are fearing that there’s going to be a conflict – and I think that some local officials in Denton were saying that the city isn’t authorized to direct police to make the policy change that was passed by voters. I mean, how do you square that circle?

So I think it’s one of these things where there’s differing opinions on it, because some of the city councils — I think Denton being one of them – have expressed concern that if they violate state law, then they could possibly be punished by the state, you know, by withholding grant funds or that kind of thing. I do understand that concern because we saw last legislative session that the state did, in fact, pass some bills specifically targeting some city actions that it disagreed with and saying that if you do this, we’ll withhold grant money, so that, you know, I do kind of understand that concern.

On the other hand, we do have a handful of places that have stopped arresting or ticketing people for marijuana possession in Texas, and so far, there hasn’t been any action from the state against them for that reason.

The state Legislature is set to reconvene in January. Is there a possibility that we could see some kind of change coming forward or acknowledgment of the issue at the statehouse?

Certainly we’ll see several bills around lowering penalties for possession introduced; there already have been, I think, a handful of bills introduced on that. The question will be if something like that passes, what form will it be in? Speaker of the House Dade Phelan has said that he supports reducing penalties for possession. Governor Abbott, as far as I know, has still said that he would not support decriminalization. He would support reducing the charge for possession to a Class C misdemeanor from a Class B.

So with that said, unless the kind of message changes from Abbott’s office – if he does express a willingness to reduce the penalty further to just a civil penalty, where there’s no possibility of jail time, no possibility of arrests – you know, if he doesn’t support that, then we won’t get it, even if it does have the Republican votes in the House and the Senate.

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