Green wave? Cannabis decriminalization passes in five Texas cities

A notable winner from Tuesday’s midterms was neither a Democrat nor a Republican — it was a policy.

Cannabis decriminalization gained traction in Texas this week when five Texas cities passed local ballot measures to reduce or eliminate penalties for possession of low-level weed.

Voters in San Marcos, Denton, Elgin, Killeen and Harker Heights have approved proposals that end arrests for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana, in most cases – and it comes just months after Austin adopted a similar measure in May. Progressive group Ground Game Texas spearheaded the initiative by 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 of Harker Heights – still passed with more than 60% of the votes in favor. Could this victory signal a change in attitude in statewide marijuana policy?

Katharine Neill Harris, a 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 take place during the next legislative session.

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: The proposals in these five cities all passed with strong support. How have attitudes toward marijuana politics changed in Texas over the past decade?

Katharine Neil Harris: Yeah, I think those votes reflect what we’ve already seen in some polls over the past few years that a majority of Texans support at least decriminalizing marijuana possession, and we’ve seen that among Republicans and the Democrats. I think the ballot measures were so successful because, you know, we haven’t seen change at the state level, and so I think there’s now a desire for change at the local level instead.

A couple of things strike me, though, about those proposals and where they were. Of course, you’re talking about San Marcos and Denton, both of which are home to two great universities. You 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, perhaps indicating a strategy for getting some of these proposals through?

Yeah, so I think one of the things it shows is that the support for decriminalizing marijuana isn’t just coming from the larger counties. It’s not just Austin; it’s not just Houston, you know, supporting this. It’s one of those outlying suburbs. These are places where Republicans win. They’re not liberal strongholds, although there’s certainly a big academic presence in some of them, so I think that shows that it’s really widespread.

What about the strategy of local ballot measures versus, say, a legislative effort? Can we expect to see measures in the next legislative session acknowledging what is happening in these various cities – and for that matter, given the make-up of the legislature, would they even stand a chance?

So, in the last legislative sessions, each, there have been several bills around the decriminalization of possession in different forms. I would expect to see the same kind of thing happen this legislative session, and we’ve seen Republican support from, you know, state reps and senators for decriminalization in the past. It’s just that there has been trouble getting bills out of the Senate. It’s been the deadlock for the last two sessions, so I think those votes in those more suburban areas – I think that will send a message to lawmakers that, you know, this issue, it’s a safe political issue. It’s a popular political question and hopefully it also sends the message to leaders that, you know, this is something that a large contingent of Texans want.

Well, if it’s so broad, why are major legislators blocking this kind of legislation? It seems to be happening in the Senate — it certainly worked that way last year after the House passed a bill that would reduce the criminal penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. We are far from legalization, but nevertheless, it seems that the leaders of the Senate did not want to rally to it. What explains this?

Well, in the Senate, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick — unique to Texas — has very broad authority to decide which bills the Senate hears and which don’t. And I mean, he just simply didn’t want some of these marijuana decriminalization bills heard in the Senate.

And so I’m hoping, and I think other reform advocates are hoping, that this session might be different, given not only what we saw on election night, but also, you know, there’s had messages from Governor Abbott saying he doesn’t think people should be imprisoned for small amounts of marijuana, which suggests some leadership support for some type of reform. And that message, I think, can then trickle down to members of the Senate – to think that, okay, well, that’s something that, you know, maybe we can support and not have to worry that it would end up being vetoed.

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