Austin police will no longer arrest for low-level marijuana possession

A statue of Willie Nelson sits in front of ACL Live at the Moody Theater at the corner of Lavaca and Second streets.
Austin police will no longer arrest or issue citations for most marijuana possession offenses under 4 ounces. (Community Impact staff)

Austin police will no longer arrest or issue citations for most marijuana possession offenses under 4 ounces. (Community Impact staff)

After initial resistance to implement a unanimously supported City Council policy to end misdemeanor marijuana arrests, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said July 2 that his department will no longer arrest or issue citations for most low-level marijuana possession offenses.

Chief Manley said his department would only arrest or issue a citation related to marijuana possession if there was an “immediate threat to a person’s safety” or it was “part of the investigation of a high priority, felony-level narcotics case or the investigation of a violent felony,” according to a memo he sent to City Council on July 2.

The end of enforcement in Austin applies only to Class A and Class B misdemeanor possession charges. Under state law, Class A marijuana possession is four ounces or less, and Class B possession is 2 ounces or less.

City Council unanimously supported a city policy in January that called for the police department to end enforcement of “low-level” marijuana possession, which included marijuana for personal use as well as vape pens and edibles, which are felony offenses under state law. Manley’s memo only said enforcement would end for marijuana possession and left no mention of other paraphernalia.

The effort to end marijuana possession offenses dates back a few years in Austin, but the debate was heightened after the Texas Legislature in 2019 legalized the cultivation, possession and sale of hemp. Hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, and they look, smell and feel the same. The only way to tell the two apart is by testing for levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

The new state law distinguished hemp as containing less than 0.3% of THC. This meant that, without smoking it, the only way to know with certainty that something was hemp as opposed to marijuana would be to run through a laboratory test.

This led the Travis County attorney and the district attorney to say last year that they would no longer prosecute possession offenses unless there was an accompanying lab report confirming illegal levels of THC. Police departments are typically responsible for paying for such tests, District Attorney Margaret Moore has said.

Council’s January resolution, led by Council Member Greg Casar, set a city policy that as long as these lower-level cases require testing for prosecution, no personnel or city funds will be used to test THC levels unless it is a high-priority felony drug trafficking or violent crime case.

According to city staff, purchasing lab equipment needed to test THC levels can cost up to $250,000. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told Community Impact Newspaper that his department was actively pursuing purchase of that equipment before City Council’s Jan. 23 direction.

Immediately after City Council’s approval, Manley said no one should feel empowered to smoke marijuana in public, as possession still violates state law, and City Council cannot dictate state law enforcement. He said those smoking and in possession marijuana would still “likely” receive a citation and “possibly” an arrest.

The initial pushback from Manley was cause for concern with some City Council members. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza has regularly cited Manley’s resistance to implement City Council policy as part of why she has lost faith in the police chief.

Lawmakers in Austin have promised a transformational change in policing following the deaths of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police, the shooting death of Michael Ramos by Austin police and a weekend of violent protests that left several protesters with serious injuries at the hands of Austin police. A majority of City Council has called for Manley to step down, and a wider majority have said they believe transformational change includes a change in police leadership.

In his July 2 memo, Manley said low-level marijuana possession “has never been a priority at APD.” He said that after City Council passed its Freedom City policy 2018, the number of arrests for “citation-eligible” marijuana offenses—less than 2 ounces—dropped significantly, from 319 in 2017 to 54 in 2019. Manley said his department made only three such arrests in the first three months of 2020, “all of which were made in the interest of public safety.”
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


Chief Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley speaks to trustees at a board information session Aug. 10. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Outside equity assessment at AISD could evaluate hiring practices, past closures

A report could look at the root causes of inequities and offer the district best practices as potential solutions.

Retailer Harbor Freight Tools will open a Georgetown location Aug. 11. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Harbor Freight Tools coming to Georgetown and more Central Texas news

Read the latest Central Texas business and community news.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin are preparing to ask voters in November to fund $7.1 billion of a $10 billion plan to expand public transportation across the city. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Project Connect one step away from officially heading to Austin voters

Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of directors approved a contract with the voters Aug. 7 laying out details of the plan and set up the rules for a board that will make funding decisions.

Beginning at noon Aug. 10, Lake Pflugerville trail will reopen for public use. (Courtesy city of Pflugerville)
Lake Pflugerville trail to reopen and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from Central Texas.

Rapid nasal swab antigen tests are recommended as options for individuals who were potentially exposed to a confirmed positive carrier, as well as for people traveling, returning to work or undergoing a medical procedure. (Courtesy Total Primary Care)
Find out where to get a 15-minute COVID-19 test in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth metros

Rapid nasal swab antigen tests are recommended as options for individuals who were potentially exposed to a confirmed positive carrier, as well as for people traveling, returning to work or undergoing a medical procedure.

Thom's Market will open at the corner of Burnet Road and Koenig Lane. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Thom's Market to open fourth Austin location

The new spot for the locally owned market will be on the corner of Burnet Road and Koenig Lane.

Three new concepts will open at 2113 Manor Road, Austin, the future location of seafood restaurant Este. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Pop-ups from former Olamaie, Pitchfork Pretty chefs opening on Manor Road

Este, the seafood restaurant from the team behind Suerte, is set to open in 2021. Until then, Le Cowboy, Rogue Radish and Heritage Seafood Market will operate at the property.

JewBoy Burgers will be moving to a brick-and-mortar location on Airport Boulevard in September. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
JewBoy Burgers moving to Airport Boulevard brick-and-mortar

Owner Mo Pittle will be moving from his food truck on Burnet Road to a new space formerly occupied by Cluck-n-Burger.

A mother and daughter visit at Seasons Assisted Living & Memory Care in Conroe earlier in the pandemic. (Courtesy Seasons Assisted Living & Memory Care)
Texas allows limited visitations to nursing homes, long-term care facilities

Facilities that meet the requirements will allow limited visitations, but you still will not be able to hug or kiss your loved one.

Chelsea Wine and Mike Hooker opened Rave On Vintage in 2013. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Rave On Vintage will close North Loop store at the end of August

Owners Mike Hooker and Chelsea Wine will transition the store fully to online sales.