Austin Passes Cannabis Decriminalization Bill, a First For Texas

Texas is the largest U.S. state with a near full-scale prohibition of cannabis. The Lone Star State allows only low-dose THC of less than 5 percent for registered medical patients suffering from epilepsy, and adult-use is completely banned.

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But a local ordinance passed over the weekend in the capital city of Austin could be the first step in individual cities challenging the state government on the issue.

RELATED: Cannabis Is Booming in Oklahoma. Is Texas Next?

Activists made a difference

Voters on Friday passed a measure to decriminalize low-level consumption and use of the plant, by a lopsided margin of 85 percent to 15 percent. That came after local activists collected some 34,000 signatures to force the Austin City Council to put it on the ballot.

According to Marijuana Moment, cannabis activists in Texas plan to take their crusade to end prohibition beyond just Austin. Another campaign some 200 miles north in the city of Denton, a suburb of Dallas, also collected enough signatures to put cannabis decriminalization on this November’s ballot. An advocacy group called Ground Game Texas is working with local advocates in Killeen, Harker Heights and San Marcos to put similar measures on the ballot in those cities.

Unlike most states, Texas does not allow for a signature-led ballot initiative at the state level — meaning residents in the Lone Star State won’t be able to put cannabis legalization up for a statewide vote. Instead, activists are focusing on enacting change at the local level.

Texans support cannabis reform

A November 2021 survey from the University of Houston found that 67 percent of Texans support cannabis reform, including 51 percent of Republicans. Another poll released last summer found that 9 in 10 Texas voters support some form of legalization and 60 percent favor legalizing adult-use cannabis.

State legislators in the Republican-controlled House and Senate have done little to advance the plant’s status in recent years, even though the party has publicly supported decriminalizing the plant since 2018. The Texas House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but the Senate did not advance the bill.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has stated on several occasions that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over low-level marijuana possession.

“Prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others,” Abbott said back in January, “and small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”

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