Austin Marijuana Decriminalization Effort Moves Forward in Texas

Austin marijuana decriminalization could become a reality in May if voters get a chance to address the issue on a ballot referendum. Its success seems almost a foregone conclusion, even in conservative Texas, as people on both sides of the political aisle favor the change.

That’s not a surprise for Democrats who have long favored decriminalization and legalization. But now Republicans, once stalwarts in the War on Drugs, have become supporters of decriminalization. That’s a nationwide phenomenon. Late in 2021, congressional Republicans filed legislation that would decriminalize cannabis nationwide under what is called the States Reform Act.

Introduced by Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, the act would remove marijuana from the federal Schedule I list of illegal drugs.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, considered one of the most conservative governors in the country, signaled in early January 2022 that he favors decriminalization. “One thing that I believe in, and I believe the state Legislature believes in, and that is prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others,” he said, according to the Texas Tribune. “Small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”

What the Austin Decriminalization Law Would Do

The Austin marijuana decriminalization law forbids police officers from arresting or even ticketing people for low-level cannabis charges. Those charges typically involve possession of small amounts of weed or related paraphernalia. The exception is if officers tie the possession to a more severe crime.

Also, the measure precludes the city from testing substances that officers suspect is marijuana. While both measures already happen informally in Austin, according to the Tribune, passage of the referendum would solidify them in law.

The drive to put the measure on the ballot in Austin is led by Ground Game Texas, a non-profit organization focused on “building a progressive Texas from the ground up.” The organization focuses on continuous engagement with voters on the issues. Its main goal is to increase voter participation.

In a blog post last year, the organization wrote: “Democrats need a winning message. We propose, ‘Workers, wages and weed.’”

Police Union Opposes Austin Marijuana Decriminalization

In addition to his recent comments on marijuana decriminalization, Abbott also signed legislation in 2021 that expanded the Texas medical marijuana program  – one of the nation’s most restrictive  – to allow cannabis use for treating cancer and PTSD patients.

However, law enforcement in Austin has opposed to changes in the law in the past. The Tribune reports that when the Austin City Council asked the police in 2020 to halt citations on marijuana-related misdemeanors, then-Police Chief Brian Manley said the council does not have the authority to tell him how to enforce state law.

The Austin Police Association opposes the new measure. The union’s chief told the Tribune that “we don’t support it just because we feel like you should follow state law. They’re skirting state law.”

However, he also added, “But the thing is if this makes people in Austin happy, so be it.”

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