The Republican attorney general of Texas is suing five cities over local laws decriminalizing marijuana that voters approved, vowing to overrule the “anarchy” of “pro-crime extremists” who advocated for the reform.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) on Wednesday filed lawsuits against the cities of Austin, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Denton over the decriminalization policies that voters passed at the ballot over recent years.
Citing state statute and Constitutional provisions that he argues prevent localities from enacting laws that conflict with statewide policy, Paxton said in a press release on Wednesday that he “will not stand idly by as cities run by pro-crime extremists deliberately violate Texas law and promote the use of illicit drugs that harm our communities.”
“This unconstitutional action by municipalities demonstrates why Texas must have a law to ‘follow the law,’” he said. “It’s quite simple: the legislature passes every law after a full debate on the issues, and we don’t allow cities the ability to create anarchy by picking and choosing the laws they enforce.”
This comes as activists with Ground Game Texas and Texas Cannabis Collective are actively collecting signatures to place local marijuana decriminalization initiatives on the November ballot in two more cities: Dallas and Lockhart.
Voters in Lubbock are already set to get the opportunity to decide on a local decriminalization measure in May after lawmakers approved a resolution to place it on the ballot after declining to enact on the reform legislatively.
Attorney General Ken Paxton Sues Five Cities Over Marijuana Policies Preventing Enforcement of Texas Drug Laws: https://t.co/EOPQa9mxBy
— Texas Attorney General (@TXAG) January 31, 2024
“Ken Paxton’s lawsuits represent an anti-democratic assault on the constitutional authority of Texas Home Rule cities to set local law enforcement priorities,” Julie Oliver, executive director for Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “In each of the cities sued, a supermajority of voters adopted a policy to deprioritize marijuana enforcement in order to reduce racially-biased law enforcement outcomes and save scarce public resources for higher priority public safety needs.”
“Furthermore, Paxton’s slander of so-called ‘pro crime’ organizations that support marijuana reform policies is profoundly ironic coming from a person who is under criminal indictment for securities fraud, under federal investigation for other financial crimes, and has admitted to violating the civil rights of whistleblowers within his own office,” she said. “This lawsuit is an obvious attempt to deflect from Paxton’s embarrassing legal jeopardy and diminishing political influence.”
In general, the measures that have been enacted in Austin, Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen and San Marcos prevent police from making arrests or issuing citations for Class A or B misdemeanor cannabis possession offenses, unless it’s part of a high priority felony investigation for narcotics or violent crime.
Harker Heights wasn’t targeted in the lawsuit, which is likely related to the city’s refusal to implement the voter-approved policy change, which prompted Ground Game to file suit against officials last month.
Shortly after voters in Harker Heights approved their measure, the city council overturned the ordinance over concerns that it conflicted with state law. But activists collected signatures for another initiative and successfully repealed the repeal last May—though officials have still refused to move forward with implementing the will of voters.
In November, Ground Game released a report that looked at the impacts of the marijuana reform laws. It found that the measures will keep hundreds of people out of jail, even as they have led to blowback from law enforcement in some cities. The initiatives have also driven voter turnout by being on the ballot, the report said.
Another cannabis decriminalization measure that went before voters in San Antonio last May was overwhelmingly defeated, but that proposal also included unrelated provisions to prevent enforcement of abortion restrictions.
Advocates have faced other issues in certain jurisdictions where voters approved decriminalization.
The Killeen City Council temporarily paused implementation of its local voter-approved ordinance, arguing that there were legal concerns that lawmakers needed to sort through before giving it their approval, which they eventually did. But last April, Bell County filed a lawsuit challenging the policy.
At the state-level last year, the Texas House of Representatives passed a series of bills to decriminalize marijuana, facilitate expungements and allow chronic pain patients to access medical cannabis as an opioid alternative. But they ultimately stalled out in the Senate, which has been a theme for cannabis reform measures in the conservative legislature over several sessions.
The House passed similar cannabis decriminalization proposals during the past two legislative sessions, in 2021 and 2019.
Separately, a Texas Democratic senator brought the issue of marijuana legalization to the Senate floor last May, seeking to attach to an unrelated resolution an amendment that would’ve allowed Texans to vote on ending prohibition at the ballot box. But the symbolic proposal was ultimately shut down. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) agreed to another member’s point of order, deeming the cannabis amendment not germane to the broader legislation.
Nearly three in four Texas voters (72 percent) support decriminalizing marijuana, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll in 2022. More than half (55 percent), meanwhile, said they’re in favor of broader legalization. Seventeen percent said it shouldn’t be legal at all.
Last March, the same institution similarly showed that a majority of Texas voters feel that the state’s marijuana laws should be “less strict.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.