With Lubbock city leaders set to consider a citizen-initiated proposed ordinance to decriminalize cannabis on Tuesday, a Texas advocacy group has released a report looking at the impacts of similar marijuana reform efforts passed by voters in five different jurisdictions during the 2022 election. It found that the measures will keep hundreds of people out of jail, even as they have led to blowback from law enforcement in some cities.
The report, from Ground Game Texas, looks at local decriminalization reforms adopted in Killeen, San Marcos, Denton, Harker Heights and Elgin. Julie Oliver, executive director for the group, said she hopes the report “inspires more grassroots organizing in communities across the state.”
“Ground Game has worked with local community organizations in these five cities to engage voters, adopt popular policies, advance meaningful criminal justice reform, and save millions of dollars in public resources,” she said in a statement released with the report on Wednesday. “Through the issue of marijuana reform, we’re helping Texans realize that their voice matters, that their vote matters, and that they can shape their own destiny through civic engagement.”
The measures have generally decriminalized marijuana possession at the local level, but in some cases they’ve also banned no-knock warrants and the use of cannabis odor as probable cause. Austin passed a similar measure in May 2022, while activists in Lubbock recently turned in enough signatures to put decriminalization on the local ballot there if local lawmakers don’t enact it first.
In Killeen, the Ground Game report found, marijuana arrests fell by 78 percent within the first six months of implementation. The group projects the change will likely keep 300 people out of the criminal legal system during the first full year.
Meanwhile, “San Marcos arrests have ended almost entirely,” the report says, “protecting dozens of people (predominantly college students) from criminal prosecution.”
Simply by being on local ballots, the group added, the measures also brought more people to the polls. “Voter turnout efforts both facilitated electoral victories and substantially improved voter turnout among key constituencies, including Black voters and young voters (ages 18 to 29).”
The changes also helped push a broader policy agenda for reform at the state level and earned media coverage, which Ground Game says aided public education, both locally and across Texas.
In some cities, however, the group found that the reforms have made less of an impact than intended due to a refusal on the part of local officials to implement the voter-approved measures.
“Three cities (Denton, Harker Heights, and Elgin) have failed to respect the will of the voters and continue to make excessive marijuana arrests,” the report says. “Ground Game has maintained engagement with community organizations to build accountability through public education, community organization, litigation, and electoral campaigns.”
For example, the organization noted that it intervened in a legal matter between Bell County and the city of Killeen in defense of the city’s reduced cannabis enforcement. “In Harker Heights and Denton,” the group added, “we have successfully supported candidates who promised to enforce the ordinances adopted by voters.”
In Lubbock, where the Freedom Act Lubbock committee turned in more than 10,000 signatures to qualify a decriminalization measure, the City Council is scheduled to decide on Tuesday whether to adopt the proposal legislatively. If they decline, the measure would go to local voters to decide on the ballot.
At least one member has already said he plans to vote against the proposal.
“From my perspective, really what they’re asking the city to do and our police officers to do is not enforce the law,” Councilman Mark McBrayer told Everything Lubbock. Though he added, “I think it’s important that citizens do know they have they have a right to petition their city council or any form of government for whatever grievances or ordinances they want.”
Last month, the Lubbock campaign said that it had met its signature gathering goal but was going to continue to petition up to the deadline in order to ensure they garnered enough valid submissions and to “show city leaders how much support this petition has.”
Under the proposal, local police would be prohibited from making arrests or citations to adults in possession of up to four ounces of cannabis, unless there’s a binding state or federal court order against the policy. If that does happen, the initiative says the “City’s policy shall be to make enforcement of Class A and Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession its lowest enforcement priority.”
The text of the measure says that it’s meant to “promote the health, safety, and general welfare of the people of Lubbock.” Enacting the reform is in the interest of “carefully allocating scarce city resources, reducing the risk of discriminatory enforcement practices, and focusing city resources on the highest priority public safety concerns.”
A more recent decriminalization measure that went before voters in San Antonio in May was overwhelmingly defeated, but that proposal also included provisions to prevent enforcement of abortion restrictions.