Texas activists have turned in more than 37,000 signatures to place a measure on the San Antonio ballot in May to decriminalize marijuana, prevent the enforcement of abortion restriction laws and ban no-knock warrants.
A coalition of advocacy groups—including Ground Game Texas, SA Stands and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC)—secured the signatures about three months after launching the local reform campaign.
This builds on the activist-led cannabis decriminalization movement that Ground Game has spearheaded in cities across the Lone Star state. Major cities like Austin have already enacted decriminalization locally at the ballot, and voters passed the reform in five other Texas cities this past November.
Now advocates are positioned to get the “San Antonio Justice Charter Initiative” before voters in the second largest city in Texas by population if the signatures are verified.
“Once again, Ground Game Texas is proud to partner with incredible local organizations to successfully put popular, progressive reforms directly on the ballot that would improve public safety and protect basic rights,” Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release.
“The San Antonio Justice Charter is a groundbreaking initiative that will make San Antonio a model for public safety reform across Texas and the nation, and we look forward to putting it in front of voters on the May ballot,” Oliver said.
The text of the measure says that “it is the policy of the City of San Antonio to use its available resources and authority to accomplish three goals of paramount importance: first, to reduce the City’s contribution to mass incarceration; second, to mitigate racially discriminatory law enforcement practices; and third, to save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
The cannabis section of the initiative stipulates that “San Antonio police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses,” with limited exceptions.
It also says that police can’t “consider the odor of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for any search or seizure.”
“No City funds or personnel shall be used to request, conduct, or obtain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) testing of any cannabis-related substance to determine whether the substance meets the legal definition of marijuana under state law,” it continues.
It would also decriminalize possession of synthetic cannabinoids by requiring police to issue a ticket or citation, rather than arrest, for possessing up to four ounces of the substance.
Additionally, the measure would prevent law enforcement from criminalizing abortion, executing no-knock warrants and using chokeholds against suspects.
Under the proposal, the city would further be required to appoint a “Justice Director” to fulfill three policy priorities: reduce mass incarceration, mitigate racial disparities in law enforcement practices and “save scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
Activists needed at least 20,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, and they successfully worked to secure enough to go into the verification process with a significant buffer.
“So many long hours, filled with sweat, and even some tears, went into gathering these signatures and we couldn’t be more grateful to the incredible folks who were out there putting in the hard work,” Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, said.
“We had less than three months to gather 35,000 signatures with a shoestring budget,” Tomas said. “It goes to show just how much San Antonio wants the Justice Charter amendments on the ballot.”
Ground Game Texas is separately fighting against local government resistance to marijuana decriminalization initiatives that voters approved in several cities it targeted for the November 2022 ballot.
Late last month, for example, activists turned in more than enough signatures to put a local measure on the May ballot in Harker Heights to overturn the city council’s repeal of a decriminalization measure.
Harker Heights officials announced last month that Ground Game Texas had turned in enough valid signatures to qualify their repeal measure for ballot placement. It is expected to be officially certified at a Council meeting on Tuesday.
But while that’s a welcome development, advocates are facing another challenge in Killeen, where Bell County commissioners voted unanimously last month to file a lawsuit against the city on the basis that, from their perspective, voters cannot locally decriminalize cannabis if it’s illegal at the state level. It’s unclear when the lawsuit will be filed.
While these headaches are frustrating for advocates, Ground Game Texas saw several success during the November election, with decriminalization passing locally in Denton, Elgin and San Marcos, in addition to Harker Heights and Killeen.
Activists are keeping their eyes on San Marcos, too. An outgoing district attorney recently made a request that the state attorney general issue an opinion on a separate decriminalization initiative that voters approved overwhelmingly there.
The reform measures might be new to the cities where lawmakers are raising concerns, but they’re not without precedent in the Lone Star state. Austin voters, for example, strongly approved a marijuana decriminalization measure this past May—and it doesn’t appear that the city has grappled with any major legal battles over the modest policy change.
While there’s been a surge of local action on marijuana issues under home rule laws in Texas over recent years, statewide reform has generally stalled in the conservative legislature.
The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session Lawmakers have since been unable to pass additional expansive cannabis bills in recent sessions.
For his part, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over low-level marijuana possession. However, the governor incorrectly suggested that lawmakers have already adopted the policy statewide.
A poll released last month found that a majority of Texas voters support legalizing marijuana, and about four in five residents feel cannabis should be legal for either medical or recreational use.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said in September that he will work to enact criminal justice reform in the 2023 session, and he again expressed support for lowering penalties for marijuana possession.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), who was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas last year, has long advocated for an end to marijuana prohibition and included the reform as a tenet of his campaign. But he ultimately lost the race to Abbott.
There were some drug policy reforms that did advance in the legislature during the past session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018, but that was later rescinded.
Separately, the state Supreme Court heard testimony in March in a case concerning the state’s ban on manufacturing smokable hemp products—the latest development in a drawn-out legal battle on the policy first proposed and challenged in 2020. (Full Story)