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Denton, Austin Vote on Weed Decriminalization This Year

The two Texas cities will vote on abolishing low-level marijuana charges in elections this spring and fall. Sixty percent of state residents believe marijauna possession should be legal, at least for low amounts.

(TNS) — With no immediate path to expand marijuana access at the statewide level, Texas advocates are taking the decriminalization fight to local governments.

Austin residents began voting this week on Proposition A, which would abolish low-level marijuana charges in the capital city. About 230 miles north, Denton activists say they have gathered enough signatures to put a similar question on their ballot this fall.

"Cannabis law reform, coming soon to a Texas city near you!" the advocacy group Decriminalize Denton tweeted on Tuesday.

It's a localized workaround for activists who have long pushed to decriminalize cannabis in the Lone Star State but face opposition in the state Legislature. Advocates in several other cities, including Killeen and San Marcos, have also pursued ballot initiatives this year.

"People are just learning more about the discretion that localities have, and therefore — for lack of a better term — taking advantage of stopping the bleeding, stopping the harms, where we can, when we can, while we wait for the Legislature to catch up with the will of the people," said Jax James, the executive director of Texas NORML, a nonprofit that advocates for marijuana decriminalization.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational use, and another nine have decriminalized marijuana in small amounts — but Texas falls in neither category. A June 2021 poll by the Texas Politics Project found that 60 percent of Texans believe marijuana possession should be legal, at least in low amounts.

Possession of marijuana, depending on the quantity, is at least a Class B misdemeanor in Texas, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. But many of the state's urban areas, including Austin, Houston and Bexar County, have diversion policies that allow those charged with possessing small amounts of the drug to avoid arrest and other penalties.

Those programs are less popular in the GOP-controlled Capitol. Efforts to decriminalize marijuana, or at least widely expand the state's medical marijuana program, have garnered bipartisan support in the past — but they've always failed in the Texas Senate, which is led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The Texas House of Representatives advanced a decriminalization bill in 2019, but Patrick killed the measure in the upper chamber.

The lieutenant governor has also opposed local efforts to legalize the drug.

In 2017, Patrick blasted Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg's diversion program for minor possession cases, saying the policy made Houston a "sanctuary city" for low-level drug crimes.

"The lieutenant governor has said repeatedly regarding sanctuary cities that he does not believe that law enforcement has the discretion to choose what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore," Patrick's press secretary said at the time.

Last year, the Legislature considered a measure to expand the state's limited medical marijuana program to include patients with any condition causing acute or chronic pain, and to allow the state's health department to approve other conditions. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican, would have increased the legal limit for THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, from .5 percent to 5 percent.

But the Senate tossed those provisions, instead approving a variation that added all stages of cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder to the eligibility list. Previously, the program was only open to those with terminal cancer and a handful of other severe conditions, like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

The Senate also struck the 5 percent THC increase, agreeing instead to raise it to 1 percent.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the scaled-back version last summer. He has since indicated that he is open to decriminalization measures, saying at a January news conference that "prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others, and small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with."

A spokesman for Patrick did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Both Abbott and Patrick are up for re-election this fall, and their Democratic opponents have all said they support legalizing marijuana entirely.

James said advocates have their "work cut out in helping to educate the lieutenant governor and make sure that he understands the science and the policy and all of the information that surrounds the issue." Texas NORML, alongside other pro-cannabis organizations, will pursue the matter again when the Legislature returns to Austin in January.

The local initiatives are not true decriminalization, James said, and Texas needs a statewide policy to fully remove all criminal penalties for possessing cannabis.

"I worry sometimes about this patchwork of policy and how it confuses people," she said. "I wouldn't change it for the world, because it's helping people in those localities, but it it just further exemplifies how this patchwork is just not a sustainable avenue."

(c)2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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