The Push to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession Continues, Town by Town

By: - November 2, 2022 12:00 am

KILLEEN, Texas — As he plied the streets of Killeen in his silver Volvo SUV on a recent Sunday, Louie Minor recalled his time as a deputy constable whose duties included arresting marijuana users.  

Minor, a 43-year-old Iraq war veteran, wanted to reach as many voters as possible in a mission that might have seemed improbable during his career in law enforcement. At each stop, Minor handed out a light-blue card emblazoned with a cannabis leaf and the message, “Decriminalize Marijuana Possession.”

In next week’s midterm elections, voters in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota will consider statewide initiatives that would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already have legalized recreational marijuana. Medical cannabis is legal in nearly 40 states, plus the District of Columbia. 

Marijuana-related measures also will be on the ballot in dozens of municipalities in six other states, including Texas, another indication of how the nation’s attitudes toward marijuana are quickly evolving.

Four of the six states — Colorado, Michigan, Montana and Rhode Island — already have legalized recreational marijuana. Local voters in those states will consider whether to expand availability or, in a few cases, reduce it by overturning or curtailing previously approved types of marijuana sales, according to a compilation of upcoming ballot initiatives by The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, commonly known as NORML. 

In Ohio and Texas, the question on some local ballots will be whether to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.

In Ohio, which has legalized medical marijuana, seven communities will vote to eliminate penalties for misdemeanor possession of cannabis. A poll released in early October by Spectrum News in partnership with Siena College Research Institute showed that 60% of likely voters in Ohio supported legalizing adult use of cannabis while 37% opposed it. 

Killeen, which sits adjacent to the sprawling Fort Hood U.S. Army base, is one of five Texas cities where voters are being asked to bar local police from making arrests or issuing citations for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Ultimately, proponents hope to persuade Texas lawmakers to legalize marijuana statewide. But Texas prosecutors, police departments and municipal governments already have scaled back enforcement: According to a review conducted for Stateline by the Texas Office of Court Administration, misdemeanor marijuana convictions dropped from 25,671 in fiscal 2018 to 7,531 in fiscal 2022.

Local Control

The Texas initiatives in Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen and San Marcos are the result of months of petition drives and coalition-building by Ground Game Texas, which former Democratic congressional nominees Mike Siegel and Julie Oliver founded in the spring of 2021 to build strength for progressive Democrats. Republicans have dominated state politics in Texas for more than two decades.  

Ground Game’s first test on marijuana enforcement was in the capital city of Austin, and it succeeded overwhelmingly. In May, voters in the nation’s 11th most populous city, a liberal enclave in a largely red state, chose to decriminalize marijuana possession (and ban no-knock warrants) by 86% to 14%.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the results, in addition to setting the stage for Tuesday’s upcoming elections, demonstrated the growing assertiveness of local voters in standing up for positions that may be at odds with the state’s Republican-dominated state leadership.  

“Cities are more and more taking the lead on so many different things,” Adler said. 

The local decriminalization efforts, which some critics condemned as thwarting state law on marijuana, could renew tensions over local control that flared in previous legislative sessions when GOP Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican leaders in Texas battled with municipalities over issues such as ride-sharing, fracking and COVID-19 policy. 

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a Stateline query for his position on the marijuana initiatives, and Adler said he has “not heard from the governor.”

With polls showing most Texans in support of at least some form of legalization, Siegel thinks that working at the local level offers the greatest opportunity for advances on the marijuana front.  

“If we had our druthers, the Texas legislature, when they meet next spring, would say, ‘Okay, it’s time to legalize it,’” said Siegel. “But if not, Ground Game intends to continue to put this on city ballots.”  

Odor Is Off Limits

The five Texas ballot measures, which are virtually identical, would bar police from making arrests or issuing citations for Class A misdemeanors (possession of four ounces or less) and Class B misdemeanors (possession of two ounces or less), except when agents are investigating a felony narcotics case or a violent felony.

Moreover, police would not be allowed to consider the odor of marijuana or hemp as probable cause for any search or seizure.  

Law enforcement representatives and some local leaders argue that decriminalizing marijuana would conflict with state law and erode the quality of life in affected communities.  

“We’ve remained against this,” said Jennifer Szimanski, public affairs coordinator for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT, the state’s largest police officers union with 27,000 members. “I think we have a lot of support in the Capitol … and we’ll continue to work with them to explain how this is detrimental to public safety.”

Szimanski quarreled with the description that the proposed misdemeanor limits constitute a low-level amount, pointing out that four ounces of marijuana would fill a four-gallon freezer bag. “Law enforcement cannot condone the substance being legal, especially not in those amounts,” she said.  

A Lifetime Blemish

Stumping for support in a low- to middle-class income neighborhood near downtown Killeen, Minor noted that a marijuana arrest can blemish a person’s record for a lifetime. And, he pointed out, people of color are disproportionately affected, even though Black and White people use the drug at equal rates. 

“I arrested a lot of people for simple marijuana [possession],” said Minor, who also is the Democratic nominee for a slot on the Bell County Commissioners Court. “How many lives did I ruin, arresting someone for a joint?”

Minor’s first stop of the day showed promise. 

Elizabeth Rivera, 50, stepped out of her house to greet him as her husband changed a tire in the driveway. After Minor gave Rivera a card explaining the ballot measure, Rivera agreed that “we need to put the bad guy in jail,” not the casual pot smoker. “I feel there’s worse situations out there that people should go to jail for,” she said.

But some opponents in Killeen worry about complicating the city’s relationship with Fort Hood, since marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Former Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra, who still serves on the city council, worries that decriminalizing marijuana “would probably be looked at as a negative check mark” in future Pentagon decisions over how many troops and personnel to assign to Fort Hood, which generates an estimated .9 billion economic impact throughout the state. Segarra also contends that passage of the initiative could lead to an increase in crime in Killeen.

Nearly 100 miles to the south, on the other side of Austin, supporters of the ballot initiative in San Marcos have spent months staging rallies and knocking on doors in what organizer Sam Benavides describes as “the biggest ballot initiative this city has ever seen.” Benavides, 23, communications director for Mano Amiga, a nonprofit that focuses on the criminal justice system, says that a sizable share of support comes from the 38,000-student community at Texas State University.

The initiative heading to voters follows a decision by the city council in April of 2020 that made San Marcos the first city in Texas to implement a “cite-and-release” ordinance that requires police to issue citations in lieu of arrests on certain nonviolent, low-level offenses, including misdemeanor marijuana possession. The Texas legislature created the cite-and-release framework in 2007 as part of a criminal justice law designed to curb arrests, depopulate jails and reduce racial disparities in policing.  

San Marcos Council Member Maxfield Baker said enacting the cite-and-release ordinance was one of his main goals in running for council in 2019. A leading supporter of the initiative, Baker described it as “really just this desire to take control of our government. A lot of young people are the folks standing up and pushing for these things and rebuking the way things have classically been done.”

Showdown in Colorado

One high-profile showdown is playing out in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the state’s second-largest city after Denver, where voters are being asked to allow the more than 100 medical cannabis dispensaries to expand into adult-use retailers for recreational marijuana. In 2012, Colorado became one of the first two states (Washington was the other) to allow recreational marijuana sales, but it allowed municipalities to approve or decline them.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and District Attorney Michael Allen, whose office serves the city, have aired television spots opposing the initiative as a health, safety and economic threat. Conversely, proponents contend that the city’s current prohibition on recreational sales chokes off potential revenue to the city of nearly 500,000, as residents go to Manitou Springs or Pueblo to buy legalized pot.

In Rhode Island, which legalized recreational marijuana sales in May, 31 communities will decide whether to ban local dispensaries, mindful that a ‘no’ vote would make them ineligible to receive marijuana-derived tax revenue. In Michigan, voters in Petoskey will decide whether to overturn a ban on adult-use cannabis stores, while voters in Lapeer will decide whether to shutter stores currently in business. 

Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director, said most of the initiatives on the ballot next week “significantly de-penalize” the possession of marijuana at the local level or permit retail licensing in municipalities where such activity isn’t permitted. To a large degree, he said, “they’re a reflection of the fact that there’s a disconnect that exists in many jurisdictions between where voters stand on this issue and where their elected officials stand on this issue.”

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