Marijuana decriminalization passes in 5 Texas cities

A notable winner in Tuesday’s midterm elections wasn’t Democrat or Republican — it was politics.

Cannabis decriminalization gained ground in Texas this week as five Texas cities passed local voting measures to reduce or eliminate penalties for low-level cannabis possession.

Voters in San Marcos, Denton, Elgin, Killeen and Harker Heights passed proposals that end arrests for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana in most cases — and it comes just months after Austin passed a similar measure in May. The progressive group Ground Game Texas led the initiative, collecting signatures to put marijuana decriminalization on the ballot in those cities.

The measures were all passed with strong voter support. Even the proposal with the lowest approval rating – that in Harker Heights – was still passed by more than 60% of the vote. Could this victory signal a nationwide shift in attitudes toward marijuana policy?

Katharine Neill Harris, drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, spoke to the Standard about the growing bipartisan support for cannabis decriminalization and how that could play out in the upcoming legislative session.

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Proposals in these five cities all passed with strong support. How has attitude toward marijuana policy in Texas changed over the past decade?

Catherine Neil Harris: Yes, I think these votes reflect what we’ve already seen in some polls over the last few years, which is that a majority of Texans support at least decriminalizing marijuana possession, and we’ve seen that with Republicans and Democrats alike. I think that the voting actions have been so successful because we haven’t seen any changes at the country level, and that’s why I think there is now a desire for changes at the local level instead.

However, a few things stand out to me about these proposals and where they have been. You’re talking, of course, about San Marcos and Denton, both of which are home to two major universities. They have Elgin, which is on the outskirts of Austin. You have Killeen and Harker Heights, both near Fort Hood. Do you see anything about geographic location that might suggest a strategy to get some of these proposals through?

Yes, I think one of the things that this shows is that support for marijuana decriminalization isn’t just coming from the biggest counties. It’s not just Austin; it’s not just Houston, you know, that supports this. It’s some of those outlying suburbs. It’s places where Republicans win. These aren’t liberal strongholds, although there’s certainly a big university presence in some of them, so I think that shows it’s really widespread.

How does the strategy of local voting compare to, say, a legislative effort? In the next legislature, can we expect action that recognizes what is happening in these different cities – and given the composition of the legislature, would it even stand a chance?

In the last legislature there were several bills to decriminalize property in different forms. I would expect the same thing to happen this term, and we’ve seen Republican support for decriminalization from state officials and senators in the past. It’s just that there have been difficulties actually getting the bills out of the Senate. That’s been the delay of the last few sessions, so I think these votes in these more suburban areas — I think that’s going to send a message to lawmakers that this is a safe political issue. It’s a popular political topic and hopefully also sends the message to leadership that this is something a broad contingent of Texans want.

Well, if it’s so broad, why are major lawmakers blocking this kind of legislation? It appears to be happening in the Senate — certainly it worked out that way last year after the House of Representatives passed legislation that would lower the criminal penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It’s a long way from legalization, but even so, it seems Senate leaders didn’t want to figure it out. What are the pros?

Well, in the Senate, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick – unique in Texas – has very broad powers to decide which bills the Senate hears and which it doesn’t. And I mean, simply put, he didn’t want some of these marijuana decriminalization bills going through the Senate hearing.

And so I’m hopeful, and I think other reform advocates are hopeful, that this session could be different, not only given what we saw on election night, but also, you know, there was messages from Governor Abbott that said that he does not agree that people should be jailed for small amounts of marijuana, suggesting some leadership support for any sort of reform. And that message can then, I think, get through to the people in the Senate — to think maybe we can support that and not worry about it ending up being vetoed.

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