Officials in Austin, Texas have officially given the green light to a cannabis decriminalization initiative now set to appear in an upcoming ballot.
On January 18, the Austin City Council in Texas voted to allow the ballot initiative known as the “Austin Freedom Act of 2021” on the upcoming special election on May 7. The Act will stop local law enforcement from convicting residents of low-level cannabis offenses, and will prohibit “no knock” warrants by police as well.
The initiative is supported by an organization called Ground Game Texas (GGT). “Thanks to the tireless efforts of the on-the-ground organizers from Ground Game Texas and partner organizations, Austin residents will soon have the ability to make lasting change to our antiquated and racist criminal justice laws,” said Ground Game Texas Political Director Mike Siegel when the organization first received approval from the City Clerk in December 2021. “With successful campaigns like these, Ground Game Texas will continue to empower and excite communities around progressive change—and deliver for the marginalized communities that too often get left behind.”
The group collected 33,332 signatures, although only 20,000 was necessary. State law requires that 25 percent of randomly selected signatures needs to be verified, which came up to 8,334 of the signatures. Of those, 2,455 were disqualified (due to duplicates, missing signature or other reasons), but the remaining 5,879 passed the test.
Further celebration was in order when GGT received news that their petition was approved on January 10, followed by the city council’s approval on January 18.
“It’s official! Austin will hold an election May 7, 2022 on the Austin Freedom Act. Voters will be able to pass a new city law that (1) ends enforcement of marijuana possession and (2) bans dangerous ‘no knock’ warrants. Thank you to everyone who got us this far—now let’s win!” the organization wrote on Twitter. GGT also proceeded to share information on how local advocates can volunteer their time to support the cause as it begins to fight for decriminalization in other cities across Texas.
The Austin Police Department originally announced the end of cannabis convictions back in 2020, stating that citations would only be given “unless there is an immediate threat to a person’s safety or doing so is part of the investigation of a high priority, felony-level narcotics case or the investigation of a violent felony,” according to KVUE. The Austin Freedom Act of 2021 makes decriminalization official, stating that if passed by voters, Class A or Class B possession offenses would not be issued by law enforcement unless the situation involves a high priority “felony level narcotics case” or “investigation of a violent felony.”
Furthermore, if passed, the Act would ban “no knock” warrants. “’No knock’ search warrants shall not be used. No Austin police officer may request, execute, or participate in the execution of any search warrant that does not require the officer to knock and announce their presence and wait at least 15 seconds prior to execution.”
Only medical cannabis is legal in the state of Texas. The medical cannabis program was recently updated in July 2021 when Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1535 into law. This expanded to include post-traumatic stress disorder and all types of cancer as qualifying conditions to register in the state’s medical cannabis program. It also raised the THC limitation from 0.5 percent THC to “one percent by dry weight.”
Recently, the topic of smokable hemp reached the Texas Supreme Court in early January, which effectively challenged the ban. Presiding judge Lora Livingston ruled that banning smokable hemp is unconstitutional, and issued a permanent injunction preventing the Texas Department of Health Services from enforcing it.