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Texas Decriminalizes Cannabis in Five Cities

On Tuesday, November 8th, five cities in the Lone Star State approved local ballot measures to reduce or eliminate penalties for low-level cannabis possession.

Voters in San Marcos, Denton, Elgin, Killeen, and Harker Heights approved propositions to stop arrests for possessing fewer than four ounces of cannabis. Progressive group Ground Game Texas spearheaded the initiative by gathering signatures to put cannabis decriminalization on the ballot in those cities. The measures passed with strong voter support, including the proposal with the lowest approval rating - Harker Heights - garnered 60% of the votes in its favor.

The approved proposals establish a municipal regulation limiting local police departments from issuing citations and arrests for fewer than 113 grams of cannabis. The proposed regulation includes cannabis odor as probable cause for searches and seizures in most circumstances and prohibits resources to test substances for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The measures follow Austin's similar local ballot measure from May 2022.

Texans Proved They Want Change in Cannabis Law.

With the approval of these reforms, the citizens of Texas demonstrated they want a change in medical cannabis law. Currently, at the state level, possessing 56 grams or less of cannabis is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000.

Although Texas voters approved reform efforts locally, municipal leaders stressed that such initiatives conflict with state law. In Denton, for example, voters approved the decriminalization initiative with a 71% majority. City Administrator Sara Hensley sent a memo, on Nov. 9th, to the mayor and city council members stating that city officials do not have the authority to implement some of the provisions without first having the Texas Legislature amend current drug laws. "While Proposition B imposes explicit prohibitions on the Denton Police Department's ability to enforce laws related to low-level marijuana possession, those prohibitions are in direct conflict with, and superseded by, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure," she wrote.

Hensley asserts that "the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure confers on police officers the authority, and duty, to enforce state law; including using the odor of marijuana as probable cause to conduct a search or seizure. It also confers the right to make an arrest and, when appropriate, the right to issue a citation for marijuana or drug paraphernalia possession regardless of the amount."

For Texas NORML Executive Director, Jax James, "this will have a positive impact on nearly half a million people who live in these cities. While these local developments are important, to mitigate harm to citizens and prioritize enforcement time, they result in a patchwork of different marijuana enforcement policies depending on location. It's time for lawmakers to take action to enact statewide reform when they convene in January 2023."

Re-elected Texas Governor, Greg Abbott (R-Texas), said earlier this year that "prison and jail are places for dangerous criminals who can harm others, and marijuana possession is not the kind of offense we want to accumulate in prisons."

According to a poll released last year, Texans (67%) support legalizing cannabis for adult use. Could this victory signal a shift in attitudes on cannabis policy statewide?

Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy researcher at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, discussed the growing bipartisan support for cannabis decriminalization. She also commented on how the upcoming legislative session could unfold, confirming that these votes will send a clear and strong message to lawmakers that cannabis decriminalization is a political and popular issue that Texans want.

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