District 4 Council Member Greg Casar has introduced a resolution that directs the city manager to end arrests and citations for possession of marijuana if there is no intent to “sell, distribute or deliver the substance.”
The effort piggybacks off of the Texas Legislature’s 2019 decision to legalize hemp, which, like marijuana, is a by-product of the cannabis plant. The state defines hemp as containing less than 1% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Since hemp and marijuana are only distinguishable by THC levels, police departments can only arrest a person for marijuana possession if they proved, through an expensive test, that the plant they were carrying contained higher levels of the THC.
Most police departments throughout Texas, including Austin's, do not have this testing equipment. Since the state’s decision last year, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla and District Attorney Margaret Moore have stopped pursuing prosecution for marijuana possession without intent to distribute. Even prior to the state’s decision, Austin City Council directed the police department to stop arrests for low-level marijuana possession. Now, City Council members want to end citations and enforcement overall.
Casar’s resolution would do two things. First, it would forbid the police department from spending money on purchasing THC testing equipment or outsourcing lab tests for THC in cases where there was no intent to sell, distribute or deliver. Second, the resolution directs the city manager to end enforcement of low-level marijuana possession when the case causes no threat to a person’s safety.
Casar’s resolution comes backed by the full support of City Council’s Judicial Committee, which includes Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and council members Jimmy Flannigan and Natasha Harper-Madison. Other elected leaders have also come out in support of the resolution’s intent. The resolution only needs six votes to pass.
Mayor Steve Adler said he generally supports Casar’s proposal and pointed to the national trend of marijuana decriminalization, calling it strange that a person can be put in jail for possession in one state while possession in another state is seen as regular business. However, he said safety was paramount.
“We have to question whether we’re really safer by continuing policies that put non-violent, low-level offenders in jail and indirectly contribute to housing and job challenges, homelessness and often crippling social stigma,” Adler said in a text message.
Although he supports the move, Adler will not be present for the Jan. 23 vote, as he is heading to Washington D.C. for the United States Conference of Mayors.
District 5 City Council Member Ann Kitchen said she was glad Casar is bringing the resolution, but City Council needs to have a broader conversation about it before she supports it.
“It’s important to focus resources on issues that are high priority for keeping the public safe,” Kitchen said. “I don’t think [low-level marijuana possession] meets that threshold.”
District 7 City Council Member Leslie Pool said she also supports the intention of the resolutions, but raised concerns about potentially unintended consequences. Pool said she wanted to ensure that the resolution would not prohibit the police department from enforcing felony-level possession.
“We’re all on board with [not penalizing] low-level possession,” Pool said. “But I’m not cool with interrupting felony prosecution. We still have standards and lines to draw. I want to make sure we’re protected.”
Casar’s resolution emphasizes that city dollars can be used to outsource lab testing in felony crimes.
“It is the policy of the City that City resources may be used to access THC concentration testing conducted or performed by non-City laboratories only for use in the investigation of high priority felony-level cannabis-related trafficking offenses,” the resolution reads.
Casar said he supports full legalization of marijuana and hopes, if successful, the resolution could make Austin a model and help “change state law for the good.”
Although officers would no longer hand out citations or arrests, Casar said they would reserve the right to confiscate small amounts of marijuana.
Council members Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Paige Ellis did not respond to Community Impact Newspaper's requests for comment.