The Challenges Ahead for Decriminalization of Marijuana in Austin, TX.
Austin has become one of the first cities in Texas to push for legislation to possibly decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. This new resolution pushing for leniency has pro-cannabis supporters cheering for the possible future of a legal cannabis state, but what does this mean for native Austenite’s? Does this mean that low-level offenders charged with possession will get off scot free? Unfortunately, Austin City Council has only de-prioritized Austin PD’s enforcement of pursuing possession charges, but not all local enforcement agencies are in favor to abide by this new resolution and still classify marijuana as a dangerous drug.
What is the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?
Ever since the legalization of Hemp with the 2018 Farm Bill Act, Travis County representatives have reportedly commented that it’s been difficult for law enforcement to identify the difference between legal hemp flower and marijuana unless it’s tested in a lab. Both cannabis plants have similar cannabinoids like CBD in their genetic makeup, although hemp only contains .3% of THC compared to marijuana which can contain 5% to 40% THC depending on the strain. Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, has the ability to get you high, although it could also possibly help consumers with pain severity, depression, insomnia, nausea, and much more.
On January 23rd, the resolution to decriminalize marijuana possession, Item 59, was passed with 9 votes for approval and zero in opposition. The resolution was spearheaded by council members Greg Casar, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, Jimmy Flannigan, and Natasha Harper-Madison. The resolution states that it advocates for police to work harder to eliminate the amount of possession charges and fines “to the furthest level under state law” as long as there is no immediate threat to an individual’s safety. The council members in favor for Item 59 expressed that this new measure would not fully decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but would decriminalize enforcement from putting extra time and resources into apprehending low-level possession offenders.
How has Austin’s Policy for Marijuana Possession Affected Others?
In recent years, Austin PD has generally bided by a “cite and release” policy that entails suspects who are cited to carry low amounts of marijuana to be brought into custody and released after paying a substantial fine. Although depending on each case, some individuals charged with low-level possession might have to wait weeks in jail and pay hefty legal fees for their trial in court.
Activist of pro-cannabis group Grassroots Leadership, Jennifer Pumphrey shares her experience with Kxan Austin commenting that her low-level possession charge has carried lasting consequences long after her case was resolved in court. Pumphrey states that she was “nineteen when she was arrested with a small amount of marijuana” and spent over six weeks in jail. She comments that her “low-level possession charge has become a life sentence,” commenting that today it is difficult for her to find housing and employment.
Why Pass Legislation to Decriminalize Marijuana?
Activists in favor of the new resolution, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza comments that using Austin’s limited resources on apprehending low-level possession is futile since testing for legal hemp or marijuana is costing the state a fortune. Mayor Graza comments that for most large cities like Austin, law enforcement “relies on shipping seized cannabis to private labs” to test if it is hemp or marijuana. According to local city representatives, purchasing new lab equipment to test THC can cost up to $250,000 or more. Along with Mayor Garza, District Council Member Jimmy Flannigan also states that Item 59 was a happy medium decision for pro-cannabis supporters and conservatives to make for distributing law enforcement funds elsewhere.
Last year, the Austin Police department issued over 432 citations for marijuana possession. With these citations, 201 were issued to Hispanic individuals and 163 were given to African Americans, making up 84% of all citations. Travis County District Attorney Margret Moore states that even with these concerning citations that marginalize people of color, most charges were dropped except for three cases. Moore also states that in those cases, only two individuals were charged with a first-degree felony.
What is the Difference Between a High or Low-Level Offense?
With the new resolution, representatives in favor of deprioritizing marijuana possession hope that THC testing will only be conducted for high priority cases involving violent crime or drug trafficking. Although Emily Gerrick, the senior staff attorney for the Texas Fair Defense Project doesn’t see the benefits of the new bill to help with future cases of possession since law enforcement has a hard time determining what case is classified as a “low or high-level offense.” Gerrick comments that for most possession cases, the difference between a “misdemeanor and a felony” comes down to the amount of pot or THC found in an edible. The attorney explains that individuals could be charged for possessing a higher amount of THC if they were cited for a pot brownie since they would site them for “the weight of the brownie” and not the total percentage of THC inside the edible.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley commented shortly after the ruling of Item 59 that his officers “will look at their policies” in regards to the new resolution to “determine the changes they need to make.” Manley also stated that him and his officers “will not go against state policy in regards to marijuana possession,” since he believes pot fuels dangerous illegal drug trading. The officer comments that because the “drug trade involves violence,” he is concerned the new ruling will jeopardize the safety of Austin citizens.
Hopefully, Item 59 will impact how many cases of low-level possession are brought to court, but it still doesn’t change policy for how these low-level offenders are treated in the justice system. From a legal standpoint, this new resolution only gives power to local law enforcement to choose which individual will be punished for a major crime or not. Even with fewer citations, there will still be some individuals who will be brought to court for possession and deal with the long-lasting consequences of their charges.
In a non-legal marijuana state, it’s a small yet brief victory for city representatives to discuss changing their policies for cannabis possession. Although the line for what is considered a legal offense or a small misdemeanor in Texas law is still blurry, relying on local law enforcement to make that pivotal judgment. Item 59 might not pave the way for cannabis legalization or decriminalization, but with this new resolution, we can see more and more Texan communities sympathize with pro-cannabis supporters to free the weed.