Despite Texas law forbidding citizen-initiated measures from appearing on statewide ballots, voters took action to decriminalize cannabis at the local level in five cities on Election Day.
Voters in Denton, Killeen, San Marcos, Elgin and Harker Heights—with a combined population of more than 400,000 residents—approved initiatives Nov. 8 to reform their laws, restricting local police departments’ ability to enforce low-level cannabis offenses.
At the state level, possessing 2 ounces or less of cannabis is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days of incarceration and a maximum fine of $2,000, according to reform group NORML. Possessing more than 4 ounces is a felony offense.
“Texans have shown that they want major cannabis law reforms in Texas via polling, legislative engagement, and now at the local ballot box,” Texas NORML Executive Director Jax James said in a public statement.
“This will have a positive impact on the almost half a million people living in these cities,” James said. “While these local advancements are important in mitigating harm on citizens and reprioritizing law enforcement time, they result in a patchwork of differing marijuana enforcement policies based on location. It is time for lawmakers to take steps to enact statewide reform when they convene in January 2023.”
The five cities where voters approved decriminalization measures on Tuesday follow in the footsteps of Austin, Texas, where voters approved a similar decriminalized measure with an 85.5% majority in May, according to the city’s Office of the City Clerk.
While Texas voters have approved reform efforts at the local level, municipal leaders stressed that those initiatives are in conflict with state law.
In Denton, where voters passed their decriminalization initiative, Proposition B, with a 71% majority, City Manager Sara Hensley sent a Nov. 9 memo to the mayor and city council members stating that city officials don’t have the authority to implement some of the proposition’s provisions without changes to current drug laws by the Texas Legislature.
“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to enforce laws related to low-level marijuana possession, those prohibitions are in direct conflict with, and are superseded by, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure,” Hensley wrote, “which vests police officers with the authority and duty to enforce state law, including the ability to use the smell of marijuana as probable cause to conduct a search or seizure, the right to make an arrest, and where appropriate, the right to issue a citation for the possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, regardless of the quantity of marijuana.”
The five local ordinances passed Tuesday aim to limit local law enforcement officials from making arrests or issuing citations for certain cannabis-related violations, including using the odor of cannabis as probable cause for searches and seizures in most circumstances.
In Killeen, where voters passed their decriminalization initiative, Prop. A, with a 68% majority, the approved ordinance prohibits “Killeen police officers from considering the odor of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for any search or seizure except in limited circumstances, require that Killeen police officers receive training on the ordinance ….”
When it comes to those arrested in Texas for cannabis possession, African Americans comprise nearly one-third of all offenses despite accounting for 13% of the state’s population, according to an analysis of state arrests data from 2017 to 2021 that was compiled by Texas NORML.
“Minor marijuana possession offenders, many of them young people, should not be saddled with a criminal record and the lifelong penalties and stigma associated with it,” James said earlier this year