Texas activists are collecting signatures to reverse a move by the Harker Heights City Council to overturn a voter-approved marijuana decriminalization ballot initiative. Meanwhile, lawmakers in another Texas city, Killeen, voted to enact a similar local decriminalization initiative—but they removed a key provision.
Harker Heights was one of five Texas cities that passed decriminalization measures with strong margins on November 8, but it’s the only one so far where local lawmakers have overturned the will of voters.
Ground Game Texas, the organization that led the reform initiatives throughout the state, discussed the possibility of taking action shortly after the lawmakers passed the ordinance to repeal what voters passed on the ballot. On Tuesday, they held a press conference to detail their new effort to put cannabis back on the ballot with another referendum.
On Nov. 8, Harker Heights voters passed Prop A to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession with 64% support. But 2 wks later, City Council voted to REPEAL Prop A! Come by our office to sign the petition this week only – M-F, 11a-1p and 5p-7p.https://t.co/i5kCDHLY4y
— GroundGameTX (@GroundGameTX) December 5, 2022
“By voting to repeal Prop A, the Harker Heights City Council sent a clear message to their constituents that they don’t respect the will of the voters or the democracy they participate in,” Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release.
“These antidemocratic politicians are trying to throw away the votes of more than 5,000 Harker Heights residents—but we won’t let them,” Oliver said. “With this new referendum, Ground Game Texas will ensure the will of voters isn’t trampled on by their local elected officials.”
In order to secure placement on the city’s May 2023 ballot to overturn the ordinance, activists need to collect 350 valid signatures from Harker Heights residents by the end of next week.
“We want to have a very strong showing that people don’t like the vote that city council took,” Oliver told KWTX News.
Meanwhile, a city official told the local outlet that when they receive petitions for the referendum to overturn the ordinance, they “will process the document as identified within our charter.”
Ground Game Texas saw several success in last month’s election, with decriminalization passing locally in Denton, Elgin, Killeen and San Marcos as well.
But while Harker Heights is the only city of the bunch to have repealed the reform, there have been issues for advocates in other jurisdictions where voters made their choice.
The Killeen City Council decided to press pause on implementing the local voter-approved decriminalization ordinance, arguing that there are legal concerns that lawmakers need to sort through before potentially giving it their approval.
They lifted that pause and officially approved the ordinance on Tuesday. But the local lawmakers amended it to remove a provision that would prohibit police from using the smell of cannabis as probable cause for a search or seizure.
In Denton, local officials didn’t pursue an outright repeal of the reform measure that voters approved there, but they did initially challenge key provisions, saying that the city isn’t authorized to direct police to make the prescribed policy changes. However, the mayor and city manager have said that low-level cannabis offenses will continue to be treated as low law enforcement priorities.
Local lawmakers in that city have since voted 6-0 to accept the results of the election.
So far, the two other Texas cities that passed decriminalization measures this month—Elgin and San Marcos—have not raised legislative or legal objections. But advocates aren’t planning to cede any of the victories.
The reform measures might be new to the cities where lawmakers are raising concerns, but they’re not without precedent in the Lone Star state. Austin voters, for example, strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure this past May—and it doesn’t appear that the city has grappled with any major legal battles over the modest policy change.
Meanwhile, San Antonio, the second largest Texas city by population, could get the chance to locally decriminalize marijuana in May 2023 after activists announced in October that they were launching a signature drive for ballot placement.
While there’s been a surge of local action on marijuana issues under home rule laws in Texas over recent years, statewide reform has generally stalled in the conservative legislature.
The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session Lawmakers have since been unable to pass additional expansive cannabis bills in recent sessions.
For his part, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over low-level marijuana possession. However, the governor incorrectly suggested that lawmakers have already adopted the policy statewide.
A poll released last year found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use. Another survey found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use” and about nine in ten voters think marijuana should be legalized for some purpose.
Additionally, a poll released in June found that cannabis legalization is more popular in Texas than the state’s top elected officials and President Joe Biden.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said in September that he will work to enact criminal justice reform in the 2023 session, and he again expressed support for lowering penalties for marijuana possession.
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Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), who was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas this year, has long advocated for an end to marijuana prohibition and included the reform as a tenet of his campaign. But he ultimately lost the race to Abbott.
There were some drug policy reforms that did advance in the legislature during last year’s session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018, but that was later rescinded.
Separately, the state Supreme Court heard testimony in March in a case concerning the state’s ban on manufacturing smokable hemp products—the latest development in a drawn-out legal battle on the policy first proposed and challenged in 2020.
In San Antonio, activists will need to collect at least 20,000 valid signatures from registered voters by early January to qualify for the May 2023 ballot. The groups said they plan to submit a minimum of 35,000 signatures.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.