The Austin City Council on Tuesday approved a proposal to put an activist-led initiative to decriminalize marijuana and ban no-knock police raids on the local ballot in May.
Ground Game Texas successfully collected enough signatures to place the reform on the Austin ballot. The council had a chance to adopt it as an ordinance on its own without putting the issue to voters—which the advocates said they would have preferred—but lawmakers chose instead to simply authorize the initiative for the ballot. The proposal passed in a 7-3 vote.
It was just this month that city officials certified petitions for the ballot initiative. Activists turned in more than 33,000 signatures for the measure—about 10,000 more than required to qualify for the May 7 election. On the same day of the local certification, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over low-level marijuana possession.
“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,” Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “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.”
While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related offenses by issuing citations and summons, the ordinance adopted by the council would go a step further.
The measure seeks to end arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession within Texas’s capital city. Also, it says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge.
Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, there was some debate over another provision of the proposal that would prohibit the execution of no-knock warrants.
Following a closed-door executive session, lawmakers came back and decided against enacting the policy change on their own. Certain members emphasized that they felt it was important to hear what Austin voters think about the reform.
The Austin City Council will vote Tuesday 9am on whether to adopt the Austin Freedom Act into law, or call an election for voters to decide.
A very exciting moment — especially for the 34,000 people who signed the petition to stop marijuana arrests and end no-knock warrants! https://t.co/md8kQ3gqP6
— GroundGameTX (@GroundGameTX) January 17, 2022
The measure would further prohibit the use of city funds to request or test cannabis to determine whether it meets the state’s definition of a lawful product. Hemp is legal in the state, creating complications for law enforcement, as they are now tasked with determining if seized cannabis products are in compliance with state statute.
“In less than a year, Ground Game Texas has demonstrated the power of grassroots organizing to affect progressive change,” Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, said. “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.”
The group previously attempted to place the initiative on the November 2021 ballot, but they did not meet the signature turn-in deadline and shifted their attention to 2022.
The group has also launched campaigns to put marijuana decriminalization on local ballots in Killeen and Harker Heights, and activists in San Marcos began a similar campaign in September.
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There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.
A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use.
The survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that 67 percent of Texas residents back the broad reform. Fifty-one percent of participants who identified as Republican said they back legalization.
In Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the legislature during last year’s session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.
A Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”