Texas voters in five cities approved local marijuana decriminalization initiatives on Tuesday.
This follows a trend of local cannabis policy changes that have been enacted in Texas, a state where statewide citizen initiatives are not currently permitted.
Austin voters, for example, strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure this past May.
Meanwhile, San Antonio, the second largest Texas city by population, could get the chance to locally decriminalize marijuana in May 2023 after activists announced last month that they were launching a signature drive for ballot placement.
“Texans have shown that they want major cannabis law reforms in Texas via polling, legislative engagement, and now at the local ballot box!” Texas NORML Executive Director Jax James said in a press release. “This will have a positive impact on the almost half a million people living in these cities.”
Ground Game Texas has led most of the local reform efforts, but they’ve also been joined by local organizations for many of the individual measures.
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.
“While these local advancements are important in mitigating harm on citizens and reprioritizing law enforcement time, they result in a patchwork of differing marijuana enforcement policies based on location,” NORML’s James said. “It is time for lawmakers to take steps to enact statewide reform when they convene in January 2023.”
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, 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.
Meanwhile, voters in several states were deciding on statewide marijuana legalization ballot initiatives on Tuesday.