The city council of Austin, Texas, has passed a measure in an attempt to decriminalize low-level offenses of weed, but police are threatening to continue arrests.
The recreational use of marijuana is still very much illegal in Texas, but the state's 2019 legalization of marijuana's nonpsychoactive cousin, hemp, has left law enforcement with no simple way to distinguish the two substances. (In Texas, hemp is defined as having less than 0.3 percent THC.)
Prosecutors in Travis County dropped 32 possession cases in July because lab tests showing THC concentration were not carried out. District Attorney Margaret Moore said that state labs estimated it would take them eight to 12 months to determine the concentration, so trying the cases would effectively force Moore's office to pay private labs to both test each sample and to testify to the findings in court.
On Thursday, Austin City Council voted unanimously to effectively decriminalize low-level marijuana offenses rather than allow money to be spent on new testing equipment.
The council does not actually have the jurisdiction to decriminalize marijuana since it remains illegal at the state level. Instead, it passed a resolution preventing the city from spending more taxpayer dollars on testing for misdemeanor offenses such as possession up to 4 ounces, which is classified by the state as personal use. It also asked Austin Police Department (APD) to no longer make arrests or give tickets for low-level offenses.
APD Chief Brian Manley promised on Friday that ticketing and arrests would continue despite the resolution. According to Manley, marijuana "is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community." But the department's continued enforcement will be fruitless since the resolution passed by the city council renders all penalties null without testing.
Gregorio Casar, council member for District 4 and a sponsor of the resolution, tells Reason that there were hundreds of Austinites with citations for possession prior to the vote. These cases will now be dropped because testing will not be paid for.
Though Manley remains adamant about enforcement, Casar confirms that City Council has asked APD to review its policies to "get as close to eliminating low-level marijuana arrests as possible" before May.
"As a sponsor of the item, I think the state of Texas should come out of the Stone Ages and not only decriminalize but legalize marijuana in the state," Casar says. "But between here and then, I think that what we did on Thursday was the most a city council can do to reduce the life-derailing impact of low-level possession charges."