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Texas Towns Impede Voters’ Wishes to Decriminalize Cannabis

In November, President Joe Biden addressed the nation, announcing his intention to pardon all prior Federal offenses for simple marijuana possession. He also called on all U.S. Governors to do the same, saying no one’s life should be turned upside down over minor marijuana infractions. Some governors followed suit, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who pardoned individuals convicted of possessing no more than one ounce of marijuana before the state legalized the substance in 2016.

Unfortunately, several local leaders oppose President Biden’s marijuana stance, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican governor told numerous news outlets that he would not consider pardons for low-level marijuana offenders. Although pardoning minor marijuana offenses would give individuals a new lease on life, essentially removing blockades to employment and housing opportunities, Gov. Abbott pushed back on Biden’s call for marijuana reform.

If Texans ever hope to see meaningful marijuana reform in the state, they need to take matters into their own hands, one town at a time. That’s what the voters of several small Texas towns did in November, casting their ballot in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession. Unfortunately, in some cities, the will of the people is running afoul of city leaders with a political agenda.

Voters Cast Their Ballots

This November, the fight to decriminalize marijuana possession in Texas was on the ballot, at least in some municipalities. Voters in five Texas communities approved measures seeking to decriminalize marijuana. Residents of Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin, and Harker Heights voiced their approval of ballot measures to ban arrests and citations for those carrying less than four ounces of marijuana.

The approval of these ballot initiatives is a victory for legalization advocates and cannabis supporters in Texas. Unfortunately, winning the vote doesn’t mean voters will get their way. In the wake of winning the decriminalization fight, a new brawl has begun, one between voters and city officials.

The Real Battle Begins

Winning more than 60 percent of local votes, the measure to decriminalize marijuana in Harker Heights is overwhelmingly popular. However, two weeks after the votes were in, the Harker Heights City Council repealed the ordinance. A letter from City Manager David Mitchell stated that the decision to decriminalize cannabis should be up to the state. It’s a message that is not sitting well with residents who turned out to the ballot box in November and cast their vote in favor of the measure.

Several Harker Heights voters are voicing their displeasure over the City Council’s decision, saying it shows an enormous disrespect for voters and disregard for the democratic process. Residents, feeling dismissed by local lawmakers, backed a Ground Game Texas petition seeking to put the council’s decision to repeal on the May ballot.

In San Marcos, 81 percent of voters supported a ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of fewer than four ounces of marijuana. Considered a “win,” there are a few gray areas the measure does not address. The ordinance prohibits San Marcos police officers from issuing citations or making arrests for Class A and Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession. However, possession of marijuana is still illegal in the city. Individuals arrested by a Hay County Sheriff’s Deputy, DPS trooper, Texas State University police officer, or Texas Wildlife Commission officer will still find themselves in hot water. Simple possession of marijuana within San Marcos city limits doesn’t necessarily mean you are free from arrest or prosecution.

Residents in Killeen face similar confusion after 70 percent of voters passed a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession. After the passage of Proposition A, the Killeen police chief directed his officers to follow the will of the voters. This move drew the ire of Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza, who asked the police chief to reverse his order. Eventually, the Killeen City Council approved an amended version of Proposition A, removing Sections 22-83 of the measure. These sections would have banned Killeen officers from conducting searches and seizures based on marijuana odor as probable cause. 

A Statewide Problem

The big problem for voters who approve of decriminalizing marijuana in Texas is reconciling local law with state law. The drug remains illegal in the state of Texas. If local voting results are any indication, decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis use in Texas is a popular initiative. Yet, lawmakers at the state level continue to block legalization efforts.

It is no secret that Texas lags far behind progressive states like Colorado and California when it comes to marijuana legislation. However, Texas also trails in comparison to other conservative states. Deeply red states like Montana and Alaska have recently legalized the substance. One Montana lawmaker even told news outlets after the vote, “there’s no way I’m going to try and overturn the will of Montana.”

If decriminalization and legalization are so popular with Texas voters, why can’t voters statewide have their day at the ballot box? It’s because the Texas Legislature controls what issues reach the statewide ballot. Currently, the Republican party controls the offices of the governor, secretary of state, and both chambers of the state legislature. Texas republicans have been extremely resistant to cannabis legalization efforts in the past. If the 2022 Texas State Republican Convention is any indication, they will continue to push back against efforts meant to advance legalization and decriminalization movements in the state. During the convention, the party adopted a platform plank opposing making marijuana legal.

Small Texas communities continue to feel the growing pains associated with decriminalizing marijuana possession. However, as the legalization movement continues to gain momentum across Texas, there may come a time when state lawmakers can no longer ignore the will of the people. That is the benefit of citywide decriminalization movements. It sparks conversations and empowers voters looking for change.

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