Austin Voters to Decide on Marijuana Decriminalization Measure

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Voters in Austin, Texas will decide on a measure that would effectively decriminalize cannabis after city lawmakers this week approved the proposal for the ballot in an election to be held in May. The Austin City Council approved the measure, known as the Austin Freedom Act, for the ballot by a vote of 7-3 on Tuesday, January 18.

If the ballot measure succeeds at the polls in May, Austin police officers would be barred from arresting or ticketing people for minor marijuana-related offenses including possession of small amounts of cannabis or marijuana paraphernalia, unless a suspect is also accused of a more serious crime. The city would also not be permitted to pay for scientific testing of substances suspected to be marijuana, making prosecution for a cannabis-related crime difficult, if not impossible. Additionally, the proposal would prohibit law enforcement officers from performing no-knock warrants (the police practice of executing search warrants and entering homes without announcing themselves first) in the city.

The city council took its action in response to a petition circulated by the progressive political group Ground Game Texas, which is also sponsoring similar efforts in other parts of the state. Last month, activists working with the group submitted the petition with over 30,000 signatures to the Austin city clerk’s office. That’s 10,000 signatures more than the number required to qualify the measure for the May ballot. On January 17, the city clerk verified that the campaign had collected the required 20,000 signatures from registered voters.

Mike Siegel, the political director of Ground Game Texas, praised the efforts of activists after the city council voted to include the measure on the ballot for an election this spring.

“The City Council’s vote to schedule an election on the Austin Freedom Act is a testament to the incredible work of our organizers and volunteers who are fighting for progressive change in their community,” Siegel said in a press release from the group. “Thanks to their tireless efforts, voters will have the opportunity in May to end the criminalization of marijuana possession and the dangerous practice of no-knock police raids.”

The city council could have voted to enact the measure itself, but instead opted to let voters decide. If the ballot measure is approved, it would codify policy that has already been informally adopted in Austin, where police routinely decline to make arrests for cannabis possession and city funds are not spent on marijuana testing.

“The primary effect is that it would make the decriminalization that exists in Austin today actually long term and would put the force of law behind it,” Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, told the Texas Tribune.

Austin Cops Would Rather Arrest People for Weed

As might be expected, Austin’s law enforcement community is against the notion of decriminalizing cannabis. When the city council voted to stop funding marijuana lab testing and asked police to stop arresting and issuing tickets for misdemeanor pot charges in 2020, Brian Manley, the chief of police at the time, said that the council did not have the authority to direct the department not to enforce state law. The police officers’ union is also against the policy change and has declined to support the ballot measure.

“We don’t support it just because we feel like you should follow state law,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. “They’re skirting state law. But the thing is, if this makes people in Austin happy, so be it.”

Ground Game Texas, which promotes the progressive issues of  “workers, wages and weed,” noted that 87% of Texans support legalizing cannabis for medical or recreational use, according to a poll conducted by the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas. The group is collecting signatures for a similar ballot measure in San Marcos and plans cannabis decriminalization efforts for the cities of Killeen and Harker Heights, as well.

“In less than a year, Ground Game Texas has demonstrated the power of grassroots organizing to affect progressive change,” said Julie Oliver, the group’s executive director. “We will continue working with local groups and volunteers to launch efforts like these across Texas, bringing new voters into the fold and mobilizing them behind progressive policies for their community.”

On the same day that the Austin city clerk’s office verified the petition signatures, Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, suggested that he supports decriminalizing marijuana in the state. Abbott also indicated that cannabis decriminalization is supported by lawmakers, despite their failure to approve several reform proposals in recent years.

“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,” Abbott said on January 17 while campaigning for re-election in Edinburg, Texas. “Small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”

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