Voters in Texas’s second-most populous city, San Antonio, overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative on Saturday that would have decriminalized marijuana and blocked enforcement of abortion restrictions. Voters in Harker Heights, meanwhile, narrowly reaffirmed a cannabis decriminalization measure they previously approved last year but which was later repealed by local officials.
The results come as advocates await Senate action on a statewide decriminalization bill that passed the House last month.
The San Antonio measure would have blocked police from making arrests or issuing citations for low-level marijuana possession, prevented the enforcement of laws criminalizing abortion, banned no-knock warrants and made other reforms.
Advocates with Ground Game Texas, the organization that spearheaded the ballot initiative, turned in more than 37,000 signatures to qualify it in January. But after a heated campaign in which the police union strongly urged voters to reject the measure, they did so by a large margin of 72 percent to 28 percent.
The text of the proposal said that it would be “the policy of the City of San Antonio to use its available resources and authority to accomplish three goals of paramount importance: first, to reduce the City’s contribution to mass incarceration; second, to mitigate racially discriminatory law enforcement practices; and third, to save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
The cannabis section of the initiative stipulated that “San Antonio police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses,” with limited exceptions.
It also said that police couldn’t “consider the odor of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for any search or seizure.”
“No City funds or personnel shall be used to request, conduct, or obtain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) testing of any cannabis-related substance to determine whether the substance meets the legal definition of marijuana under state law,” it continues.
It would have also decriminalized possession of synthetic cannabinoids by requiring police to issue a ticket or citation, rather than arrest, for possessing up to four ounces of the substance.
Additionally, the measure would have prevented law enforcement in the state’s second-most populous city from criminalizing abortion, executing no-knock warrants and using chokeholds against suspects.
Under the proposal, the city would further be required to appoint a “Justice Director” to fulfill three policy priorities: reduce mass incarceration, mitigate racial disparities in law enforcement practices and “save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
The Harker Heights measure was somewhat more procedurally convoluted, as voters already approved decriminalization at the ballot last November. But because the City Council repealed the ordinance shortly after the vote over concerns that it conflicted with state law, activists collected signatures for another initiative to repeal the repeal. Voters accomplished that on Saturday—by just one vote.
Proposition A asked: “Shall the ordinance repealing Chapter 133, ‘Marijuana Enforcement,’ of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Harker Heights be approved?”
If voters wanted to repeal the repeal, they needed to vote “No.” The narrow 1,135-1,134 result likely means there will be a recount.
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Before Saturday’s results, Ground Game Texas had secured a number of reform victories in recent elections.
While Harker Heights was the only city of the bunch to have repealed the initiative, advocates have faced issues in other jurisdictions where voters approved decriminalization.
For example, the Killeen City Council temporarily paused implementation of the 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.
In Denton, local officials didn’t pursue an outright repeal of the cannabis measure that voters approved there, but they did initially challenge key provisions, saying that the city wasn’t authorized to direct police to make the prescribed policy changes. However, they later accepted the reform.
Elgin and San Marcos also passed decriminalization last year, without experiencing the same complications from local government.
Austin voters, meanwhile, strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure last May.
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 failed in the conservative legislature.
Advocates are closely watching to see what, if anything, the Texas Senate does with a bill to decriminalize marijuana statewide that the House passed last month.
The House has already passed similar cannabis decriminalization proposals during the past two legislative sessions, in 2021 and 2019. But so far the proposals have consistently stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the chamber.
Also last month, the House passed a bill to allow medical marijuana as an opioid alternative for people with chronic pain and also replace the state’s THC limit, sending the legislation to the Senate for consideration.
Nearly three in four Texas voters (72 percent) support decriminalizing marijuana, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll in December. More than half (55 percent), meanwhile, said they’re in favor of broader legalization. Seventeen percent said it shouldn’t be legal at all.
A more recent survey from the same institution similarly showed that a majority of Texas voters feel that the state’s marijuana laws should be “less strict.”
Texas lawmakers also recently filed a series of new bills aimed at promoting and expanding psychedelics research in the state.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.