Texas activists have turned in more than enough signatures to put a local measure on the May ballot to overturn lawmakers’ repeal of a voter-approved marijuana decriminalization initiative. But they’re also facing another legal challenge in a different city where voters passed a similar reform last month.
The response from lawmakers and prosecutors to the multiple reforms that was approved during the November election has been a source of frustration for advocates, including those who were part of the main organizing group Ground Game Texas.
But they’ve shown that they won’t back down and are prepared to fight to defend the will of voters. That’s been especially clear in Harker Heights, where the City Council voted to repeal the local decriminalization measure. Activists quickly collected signatures to put an initiative on the next ballot to repeal the action.
Officials announced on Thursday that they had turned in enough valid signatures to qualify for ballot placement. It is expected to be officially certified at a Council meeting on January 10.
Harker Heights Assistant City Manager Jerry Bark said in a press release that the “examination of the petition has been completed and it is determined that the petition meets all requirements in accordance with the State law and City Charter.”
“The certification of the referendum does not revive Chapter 133 (Prop A),” he added. “Additionally, the City will continue to respect and operate under the laws of the State of Texas that mandate the required conduct for law enforcement officers and prohibit the adoption of a policy under which the City will not fully enforce laws relating to drugs.”
The petition’s success is positive news for advocates, but they’re separately facing a legal challenge in Killeen, with Bell County commissioners voting unanimously on Thursday to file a lawsuit against the city on the basis that, from their perspective, voters cannot locally decriminalize cannabis if it’s illegal at the state level.
That lawsuit has the support of Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza, who said that last week’s commission vote “was really the beginning of getting this particular question before a court: What is the effect of a local municipal ordinance when it comes into conflict with state law?”
“The county commissioners voted to direct the county attorney and [himself] to get involved in the beginning to get that question answered,” he said. “That is the only way to get it into court to begin a legal action.” It’s unclear when the lawsuit will be filed.
Ground Game Texas saw several success in last month’s election, with decriminalization passing locally in Denton, Elgin and San Marcos, in addition to Harker Heights and Killeen.
Activists are keeping their eyes on San Marcos, too. An outgoing district attorney recently made a request that the state attorney general issue an opinion on a separate decriminalization initiative that voters approved overwhelmingly there.
The reform measures might be new to the cities where lawmakers are raising concerns, but they’re not without precedent in the Lone Star state. Austin voters, for example, strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure this past May—and it doesn’t appear that the city has grappled with any major legal battles over the modest policy change.
Meanwhile, San Antonio, the second largest Texas city by population, could get the chance to locally decriminalize marijuana in May 2023 after activists announced in October that they were launching a signature drive for ballot placement.
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.
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 this month found that a majority of Texas voters support legalizing marijuana, and about four in five residents feel cannabis should be legal for either medical or recreational use.
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 this year, 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.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.