Texas activists have turned in what they say are enough signatures to place a measure on the Harker Heights ballot to reverse a City Council move that repealed a voter-approved marijuana decriminalization initiative.
Ground Game Texas, which was behind a number of successful local decriminalization measures that passed this year, is also criticizing an outgoing district attorney’s request that the state attorney general issue an opinion on a separate reform initiative that voters approved overwhelmingly in San Marcos.
In Harker Heights, the City Council voted to repeal the decriminalization initiative just weeks after it was approved by voters on the November ballot, prompting activists to launch a signature drive to put the issue back in voters’ hands.
In order to secure placement on the city’s May 2023 ballot to overturn the ordinance, activists needed to collect 348 valid signatures from Harker Heights residents. At a press conference on Monday, Ground Game Texas said they gathered more than 600 signatures that they’ve turned in to city officials.
“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. With this new referendum, Ground Game Texas will ensure the will of voters isn’t trampled on by their local elected officials.”
A city official previously said that when they receive petitions for the referendum to overturn the ordinance, they would “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 and Killeen, in addition to Harker Heights and San Marcos.
While only Harker Heights has moved to repeal the initiative altogether so far, activists are also closely monitoring a recent action by Hays County Criminal District Attorney Wes Mau, who submitted a request for a legal opinion on the San Marcos decriminalization measure from state Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“Based on the ordinance’s enactment, the following questions are raised,” the district attorney’s letter says. “First, is the ordinance preempted by the laws of the State of Texas criminalizing the possession and delivery of marijuana? Second, if the ordinance is void due to preemption, does it expose the city to potential legal action, particularly with respect to potential discipline of San Marcos police officers unwilling to comply with an unlawful ordinance?”
Ground Game Texas said that the request is “a disappointing action from a lame duck District Attorney hoping to overturn the will of voters.”
“We are monitoring this request closely, and are prepared to take action if the Attorney General intervenes,” Mike Siegel, the organization’s general counsel, said on Saturday. “We expect the elected officials in San Marcos to respect the will of the voters who elected them, and look forward to the people of Hays County being represented by a new District Attorney who will do just that.”
We did it – again. Harker Heights voters overwhelmingly passed Prop A Nov 8th but City Council repealed it two weeks later so we fought back and collected over 600 signatures in less than two weeks time to meet a deadline for a referendum. We turned those signatures in today. pic.twitter.com/YQtTohDXQ8
— GroundGameTX (@GroundGameTX) December 13, 2022
Meanwhile, in Killeen, the 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 last week. 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 other Texas city that passed decriminalization measures this month—Elgin—has 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.