Dallas voters could get the chance to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana

Other cities have passed similar measures, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued to block them from going into effect.

DALLAS — Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Texas Tribune here.

Dallas voters could decide whether to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana if City Council members approve a plan to put the measure on the November ballot, several council members said Friday.

Council member Chad West will propose the Dallas Freedom Act at a June 26 meeting, he said in a news release. A petition supporting the change garnered more than 50,000 signatures, organizers said.

“Voters in our city and across the country want to decriminalize marijuana,” West said. “Our already burdened police should focus their attention on serious crime, not arresting people with small amounts of marijuana. Bringing this to voters through a City Council-proposed Charter amendment instead of a petition will save the city time and resources.”

The proposal would direct police to stop writing tickets or making arrests for less than four ounces of marijuana. Possessing two to four ounces is a class A misdemeanor that can carry a one-year jail term and holding under two ounces is a class B misdemeanor that can come with a 180-day sentence.

Similar ordinances have passed in six other cities: Austin, Killeen, Harker Heights, Denton, Elgin and San Marcos. In some cases, city officials have resisted putting the voter-approved ordinances in place. And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken steps to block them from going into effect.

If voters approve, Dallas would become the largest city in a growing number of Texas municipalities to sidestep state laws that currently ban recreational pot. A similar effort in Lubbock failed last month.

Texas is one of 26 states that has not fully legalized marijuana. The 24 states that have include both liberal California and conservative Montana.

“For the past four years I have advocated for our council to implement this kind of initiative.

Dallas council member Adam Bazaldua. “Our jails are overfilled with predominantly brown and black males serving sentences for a substance that is making others millions of dollars in more than 30 states across the country. It’s past time we take action against this injustice.”

In 2021, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia ordered his officers to stop arrests for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana after the city’s public safety committee urged him to do so in light of data that showed unequal treatment of people of color under marijuana laws.

But this would be the first time voters there would get to decide on significant statutory relief from arrests on small amounts of weed.

“Despite the positive steps taken by the city and DPD in recent years, marijuana-related arrests continue, and racial disparities persist,” council member Jaime Resendez said. “Although marijuana use is comparable across racial lines, Black and Latino individuals are disproportionately arrested and punished. Decriminalization is the best way to address this disparity.”

City ordinances like the one the Dallas City Council will consider are key to any effort to decriminalize weed across the state because there is no process in Texas for a voter-driven statewide referendum that would let voters from the Rio Grande Valley to the Panhandle decide what they want their marijuana laws to be.

Most Texans support some type of marijuana decriminalization, according to recent polls. But there is little hope for a law in favor of marijuana decriminalization or outright legalization while hard-right social conservatives are in charge of the state. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, and his allies have blocked legislation that would relax marijuana laws in the past.

There’s even less hope for a constitutional amendment, which would be the only way to put the question to voters across the state. Only lawmakers can pose a statewide question and to do that, it would need two-thirds support from a Legislature that has historically been unenthusiastic about relaxing marijuana laws.

The Dallas amendment will “reform marijuana enforcement, redress historic discrimination, end marijuana criminalization, and save millions in much-needed public funds,” Catina Voellinger, executive director of Ground Game Texas, said in a news release.

Ground Game Texas gathered the petition signatures.

The Texas House overwhelmingly supported legislation last year that would have expanded the state’s medical marijuana program.

But proponents have not been able to find enough support in the Texas Senate to get anything to the governor’s desk.

Texas does allow voters in municipal elections to collect signatures to force ballot measures that create or strike down city ordinances if city council members don’t propose them.

Historically, that right has been frequently exercised without pushback from legislative leaders, in cities large and small, on a host of issues ranging from texting-while-driving bans to paper bag restrictions.

However, state leaders have begun to push back.

The Legislature last year approved a law that effectively prohibits cities from putting in place certain policies that might go beyond state law, such as requiring employers to have paid sick leave. The law, while in effect, is being challenged in court.

State leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, insist that cities may not enact statutes in direct opposition to state law. Paxton is suing five of the cities that have voted to decriminalize marijuana.

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