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Texas Governor Condemns Local Marijuana Decriminalization Efforts As Lubbock Voters Decide On Reform At The Ballot



The Republican governor of Texas says that cities seeking to locally decriminalize marijuana—including one that’s set to vote on the reform next week—don’t have the authority to “override” state law.

Three months after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) sued five cities over voter-approved cannabis decriminalization policies, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) addressed the forthcoming vote in Lubbock, where the reform is on the local May 4 ballot.

The governor told KAMC that his concern was “bigger” than the question of decriminalization itself and was more a matter of localities superseding state laws.

“Local communities such as towns, cities and counties, they don’t have the authority to override state law,” Abbott said. “If they want to see a different law passed, they need to work with their legislators. Let’s legislate to work to make sure that the state, as a state, will pass some of the law.”

The governor has previously said that he doesn’t believe people should be in jail over marijuana possession—although he mistakenly suggested that Texas had already enacted a decriminalization policy to that end.

In the new interview this week, Abbott said it would lead to “chaos” for voters in individual cities to be “picking and choosing” the laws they want abide by under state statute.

“It’s an unworkable system,” he said.

Early voting on the Lubbock measure began on Monday, April 22 and goes through Tuesday, April 30—with Election Day coming on the following Saturday.

Paxton, the state attorney general, used more inflammatory rhetoric when his office announced that it was 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.

He filed lawsuits against the cities of Austin, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Denton. The litigation is still pending, but advocates in Lubbock are moving ahead with their local reform effort nonetheless.

Adam Hernandez, the Lubbock decriminalization campaign director who is also running to become the city’s next mayor, told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he feels the attorney general’s lawsuits have actually “energized people” to vote in favor of the reform proposal.

“I don’t know that it’s been working the way that they would like it to work,” he said. “They’ve been getting a lot of pushback from the community—people calling out a lot of the misinformation that’s been going around.”

Hernandez added that “we’re not really concerned” about the threat of a lawsuit coming down on Lubbock if the cannabis measure passes, and he pointed out that there’s also a clause in the measure that says, in the event that decriminalization is voided by the state, it would still become the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.

Last December, lawmakers in Lubbock officially approved a resolution to put the local decriminalization initiative on the ballot after declining to enact on the reform legislatively.

Meanwhile, activists with Ground Game Texas and Texas Cannabis Collective have been collecting signatures to place local marijuana decriminalization initiatives on the November ballot in two more cities: Dallas and Lockhart.

In general, the measures that have already been enacted in AustinDenton, 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 December.

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.”

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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