City Council calls May special election for vote on Austin marijuana enforcement, use of no-knock warrants

Mike Siegel, political director for the voter engagement group Ground Game Texas that developed the Austin Freedom Act of 2021, asked City Council to approve the ordinance without a city election Jan. 18. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Mike Siegel, political director for the voter engagement group Ground Game Texas that developed the Austin Freedom Act of 2021, asked City Council to approve the ordinance without a city election Jan. 18. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Mike Siegel, political director for the voter engagement group Ground Game Texas that developed the Austin Freedom Act of 2021, asked City Council to approve the ordinance without a city election Jan. 18. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Editor's note: This story was updated to include information on election costs.

The decision to end low-level marijuana enforcement and no-knock search warrants in Austin will be left to city voters following a Jan. 18 City Council decision.

Council voted 7-3 in favor of holding an election over the ordinance proposed through the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 developed by voter engagement group Ground Game Texas. Ground Game gathered enough signatures last year on its Freedom Act petition to put the decriminalization and warrant item up for consideration at the city level.

While misdemeanor marijuana enforcement and the use of no-knock warrants are already essentially ended in Austin in line with earlier city actions, the Freedom Act's passage would further cement the policies in city code.

Under Austin's rules for citizen-initiated petitions, a certified petition may either be passed as-is by City Council or put before voters in the next local election. Council gathered Jan. 18 to decide which option to take and eventually chose to call an election rather than passing the proposal outright.


The special election to decide the issue will be held May 7 and is open to city voters in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties. Early voting will run from April 25-May 3.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen voted in favor of calling an election and said that, while she is not against the contents of the ordinance, she would prefer to see it put to voters and has concerns about how its immediate passage could affect current practices.

“I do not believe that adopting this ordinance is adopting our policies; it is different. It goes beyond our policies. The most important thing to me is to protect [our policies] that we have in place right now: the reduction in the use of no-knock [warrants] and ending arrests for marijuana that we’ve been able to achieve. And I don’t want to put that at risk," Kitchen said. "I also think this is an important question for the public, and my motion to put this on the ballot is not an indication of me being opposed to the policies here at all."

Council Members Vanessa Fuentes, Pio Renteria and Greg Casar voted against calling an election for the new ordinance. Casar said he favored immediate passage of the proposal given the harms that enforcement has had in the past as well as the cost of holding a special election.

“We have worked a long time to try to end arrests and citations for low-level marijuana possession and worked a very long time to reduce the use of no-knock warrants which have ... resulted in needless injuries to police officers and community members alike with the most clear examples being the killing of Breanna Taylor as well as the killings in Houston that happened not so long ago," Casar said. "I think we could simply adopt the ordinance today. I believe the community is likely to adopt it through their vote; I’ll certainly be voting for this in May."

The city did not immediately have a cost estimate available for the May 7 election. The city clerk's office has $866,777 available in its current budget for conducting elections through fiscal year 2021-22. Last May's eight-proposition special election in Austin cost more than $700,000 according to the city, and the clerk's office spent a total of $1.76 million on elections in fiscal year 2020-21.

The Austin Police Department and city declined to comment on the potential effects that the marijuana and search warrant policy updates would have on policing operations.
By Ben Thompson

Austin City Hall Reporter

Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. He spent more than two years reporting on Montgomery County and The Woodlands area before moving to Austin in 2021 to cover City Hall and other news throughout the city. Contact Ben with questions, tips or feedback at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @BThompson_CI.