San Antonio, Texas officials have officially certified a local initiative for the May ballot that would decriminalize marijuana, prevent the enforcement of abortion restriction laws and ban no-knock warrants.
But already, the city attorney is indicating that the local reforms would not be enforcable under state statute, even if voters ultimately approve the measure on May 6.
Advocates with Ground Game Texas, the organization that spearheaded the ballot initiative and turned in more than 37,000 signatures to qualify it last month, have grown used to the bureaucratic pushback after several cities fought against successful decriminalization measures that passed last year.
For the time being, the focus will be on ensuring that voters are aware that the criminal justice reform package will be on the ballot this spring.
“The simple truth is that these policies will SAVE lives by limiting unnecessary interactions with police that can lead to serious injury or even death—as we have seen recently with the shooting of Erik Cantu and death of Tyre Nichols,” Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, which supported the initiative alongside Ground Game, said in a press release.
“By passing this we will create a safer, more just San Antonio for all that can be a beacon of light for other cities across Texas and even across the nation,” Tomas said.
(2/2) We need your support now more than ever. Your donation goes towards canvassers, campaign materials & the battle against the Police Union machine to ensure voters are informed & vote in favor of the SA Justice Charter this Spring!
Donate now: https://t.co/QJm5VWsNTZ
— ACT 4 SA (@Act4SATX) February 8, 2023
The text of the measure says that “it is the policy of the City of San Antonio to use its available resources and authority to accomplish three goals of paramount importance: first, to reduce the City’s contribution to mass incarceration; second, to mitigate racially discriminatory law enforcement practices; and third, to save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
The cannabis section of the initiative stipulates that “San Antonio police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses,” with limited exceptions.
It also says that police can’t “consider the odor of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for any search or seizure.”
“No City funds or personnel shall be used to request, conduct, or obtain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) testing of any cannabis-related substance to determine whether the substance meets the legal definition of marijuana under state law,” it continues.
It would also decriminalize possession of synthetic cannabinoids by requiring police to issue a ticket or citation, rather than arrest, for possessing up to four ounces of the substance.
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Additionally, the measure would prevent law enforcement from criminalizing abortion, executing no-knock warrants and using chokeholds against suspects.
Under the proposal, the city would further be required to appoint a “Justice Director” to fulfill three policy priorities: reduce mass incarceration, mitigate racial disparities in law enforcement practices and “save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
That is one aspect City Attorney Andy Segovia’s office said in a memo circulated on Wednesday that could be implemented under state law.
But assuming the measure passes this May, the office also signaled that the cannabis and other provisions of the initiative would be preempted by state law, citing language from the state Constitution that says “no charter or any ordinance passed under said charter shall contain any provision inconsistent with the Constitution of the State, or of the general laws enacted by the Legislature of this State.”
“Further, Texas Local Government Section 370.003 expressly preempts a city’s authority to limit enforcement of drug laws,” the memo says.
“The petition—even if adopted by the voters—will not legalize marijuana,” Segovia said in a press conference on Wednesday. “It will not legalize abortion. It will not create a complete ban on choke holds. It will not change the established process and procedures under state law for obtaining warrants. And it will not remove the discretion that San Antonio policemen have to either cite or arrest somebody for all these crimes.”
“I don’t think reasonable minds can differ that these things are absolutely inconsistent with state law,” he said.
Other cities across the Lone Star state have implemented voter-approved marijuana decriminalization measures regardless of Segovia’s statutory interpretation. That includes Austin, where voters strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure last year.
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 in December 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 last year that he will work to enact criminal justice reform in the 2023 session, and he again expressed support for lowering penalties for marijuana possession.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), who was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas last 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 the past session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
A bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and another to require a study into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics for military veterans were enacted.
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 last year 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.
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