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Texas Judge Upholds Austin Marijuana Decriminalization Law, Rejecting GOP Attorney General’s Challenge



A Texas district court judge has dismissed a lawsuit from the Republican state attorney general who sought to overturn a local voter-approved marijuana decriminalization initiative in Austin.

Travis County District Court Judge Jan Soifer rejected the challenge, as well as a request for a temporary injunction, from Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) on Tuesday. That means the cannabis reform measure approved by voters in 2022 remains effective, pending any potential appeal from the AG to a higher court.

Paxton’s office 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. This marks the first court-level defeat to the challenge, and it comes in the state’s fifth-largest city.

“This is a great victory, not only to protect the will of Austin voters, but also to encourage voters in places like Dallas to support our campaigns this year,” Ground Game Texas, which has led the local decriminalization movement in the Lone Star State, said in an email to supporters on Wednesday.

The court action comes about two weeks after activists in Lockhart turned in what they say are more than enough signatures to qualify a cannabis decriminalization initiative for the local ballot this November. As referenced in the Ground Game email, Dallas is also in play for cannabis reform this election cycle.

“Ground Game’s campaign in Austin is what got this organization started. We took our victory here and expanded to five more cities—and have only grown from there,” the organization said. “By protecting our first policy victory, we keep our statewide momentum going, and encourage more cities to follow suit.”

“Of course, there’s much more to be done,” it said. “But for today, please join us in celebrating a victory for Austin voters and a defeat for the Attorney General.”

In a setback from advocates, however, voters in Lubbock rejected a separate cannabis reform initiative last month.

Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has separately lashed out against the municipal cannabis reform efforts.

“Local communities such as towns, cities and counties, they don’t have the authority to override state law,” the governor said late last month. “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.”

He said it would lead to “chaos” and create an “unworkable system” for voters in individual cities to be “picking and choosing” the laws they want abide by under state statute.

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

Paxton, the state attorney general, used more inflammatory rhetoric when his office announced in January 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.

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.

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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 year—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.

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.

Three in five Texans, including a plurality of Republicans, support legalizing marijuana, according to a survey released this month.

Another poll released in 2022 found that nearly three in four Texas voters (72 percent) support decriminalizing marijuana. 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.”

Read the Texas district judge’s ruling in the Austin marijuana decriminalization case below:

Congressional Committee Pushes Federal Agencies To Study State Marijuana Laws And Reconsider Cannabis Use Policies For Government Workers

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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