Green wave? Cannabis Decriminalization Underway in Five Texas Cities

The one notable winner in Tuesday’s midterms wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican — it was a political course.

Cannabis decriminalization gained ground in Texas this week, with five Texas cities passing local ballot measures to reduce or eliminate low-level marijuana possession fines.

Voters in San Marcos, Denton, Elgin, Killeen and Harker Heights have approved proposals that would, in most cases, eliminate arrests for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana – just months after Austin passed a similar measure back in May. Progressive group Ground Game Texas led the initiative by collecting signatures to decriminalize marijuana on the ballot in these cities.

All measures took place with the active support of voters. Even the proposal with the lowest approval rating – the proposal in Harker Heights – still passed more than 60% of the vote in his favor. Could this victory signal a statewide change in attitudes towards marijuana?

Katherine Neal Harris, a research fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, spoke to the Standard about the growing bipartisan support for cannabis decriminalization and how it could affect the upcoming legislative session.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: All proposals in these five cities received strong support. How has attitudes towards marijuana policy changed in Texas over the past decade?

Katherine Neil Harris: Yes, I think these votes reflect what we’ve already seen in some polls over the past few years, which is that a majority of Texans support at least decriminalizing marijuana possession, and we’ve seen that among Republicans and Democrats. I think the electoral measures have been 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.

However, I was struck by a couple of things about these proposals and where they were. Of course, you are talking about San Marcos and Denton, where two major universities are located. 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 the geographic location, perhaps indicative of a strategy for accepting some of these proposals?

Yes, I think one of the things that this shows is that support for marijuana decriminalization does not just come from the largest counties. It’s not just Austin; it’s not just Houston that supports it. It’s one of those outlying suburbs. These are places where the Republicans are winning. These are not liberal strongholds, although some of them definitely have a large number of universities, so I think this is an indication that they are indeed widespread.

What about the strategy of local voting measures versus, say, legislative efforts? Can we expect any action to be taken in the next legislative session to recognize what is going on in these various cities, and for that matter, given the composition of the Legislative Assembly, do they stand a chance at all?

So, in the last few legislative sessions, each of them, there have been several bills to decriminalize possession in various forms. I expect to see the same in this legislative session, and in the past we have seen Republican support for decriminalization from state representatives and senators. There were just problems actually getting the bills out of the Senate. It’s been a delay in the last few sessions, so I think these votes in these more suburban areas — I really think that will send a message to lawmakers that, you know, this issue, it’s a safe political issue. It’s a popular political issue, and hopefully also sends a message to the leadership that, as you know, this is what the broad contingent of Texans want.

Well, if it’s so broad, why are key legislators blocking this kind of legislation? This seems to be happening in the Senate—certainly exactly what was done last year after the House of Representatives passed a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Legalization is still far away, but, nevertheless, the leaders of the Senate did not seem to want to do this. What explains this?

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

And so I hope, and I think other reformers hope, that this session can be different, given not only what we saw on election night, but also, you know, there were messages from Governor Abbott saying, that he doesn’t think people should be jailed for small amounts of marijuana, which suggests some leadership support for some kind of reform. And then this message, I think, can leak out to the people in the Senate – think that, well, well, this is something that, you know, maybe we can support and not worry about what they end up imposing on us. veto.

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