Voters in Austin, Texas, approved Proposition A on May 7, which decriminalizes cannabis and prohibits “no-knock” police raids. An overwhelming 85 percent support was a clear message that the city favors a non-criminal approach to cannabis, and addressing police abuse of power.
The text of Proposition A states that city police may not issue arrests or citations for Class A (2 to 4 ounces) or Class B (under 2 ounces) misdemeanor marijuana possession. It restricts police from simply replacing marijuana charges with a “drug residue” or “drug paraphernalia” charge. It also defunds police testing of drugs for THC, a psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Now, city police may only make a low-level cannabis arrest if it’s part of a felony narcotics investigation designated high-priority by leadership, or part of the investigation of a violent felony. Police can still seize substances they believe to be cannabis, but must write it up in a report if they do so, and “release the individual if possession of marijuana is the sole charge.”
The adoption of Proposition A will now enshrine cannabis decriminalization in city law, meaning it can’t be changed by a future police chief.
The city had already been moving in this direction. Almost two years ago, former Austin police Chief Brian Manley announced that the department would no longer arrest or cite low-level cannabis possession offenses; the City Council had recommended such a strategy several months earlier. And both developments resulted from a 2019 state-level reform that legalized non-psychoactive hemp, and effectively made it much more difficult and expensive for prosecutors to prove marijuana possession cases.
But the adoption of Proposition A will now enshrine cannabis decriminalization in city law, meaning it can’t be changed by a future police chief.
Overall, cannabis possession arrests have been declining in Texas every year—from a high of 64,800 in 2017 to a low of 21,800 in 2021. But even as possession arrests are decreasing, racial inequality is actually getting worse. Black and Hispanic residents’ shares of total marijuana arrests have increased between 2017-2021, while white residents’ share decreased. Black residents suffer the worst disparity—almost three in 10 marijuana possession arrests over the last five years were of Black residents, though they make up just 13 percent of the population.
What’s also disturbing is that nearly half of all possession arrests—49 percent—are for residents aged 17 to 24. It just shows us how in Texas, like most of the nation, marijuana enforcement is used to target predominantly Black, Brown and young people.
Texas remains the most populous US state without legal adult-use cannabis. But as Austin’s voters just showed us, cannabis reform remains very popular among the people—just not among its politicians in the state legislature. Of course, Austin is a heavily populated and predominantly Democratic city compared to most of Texas–but polling shows that a majority of both Democratic and Republican Texas voters back full legalization.
The second part of Proposition A is very simple: It bans police from using no-knock raids.
“No-knock” raids are widely used throughout the country. They consist of police forcibly entering a home without announcing their presence, and have become a favored tactic for executing low-level and nonviolent drug warrants. As investigative journalist Radley Balko has noted, no-knock raids are particularly likely to be deployed against people with low-level drug charges, because police perceive they can easily destroy evidence.
Now, any time police in Austin execute a warrant, they must first knock, announce their presence and wait 15 seconds before trying to enter.
While journalists and advocates have been documenting—and speaking out against—the use of no-knock raids for decades, the violence they engender more recently entered national public consciousness after the killing of Breonna Taylor in March 2020.
Now, any time police in Austin execute a warrant, they must first knock, announce their presence and wait 15 seconds before trying to enter a home.
According to Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, the city police department has been conducting an average of three or four no-knock raids each year for suspects perceived to be “dangerous.” His union was neutral on the marijuana components of Proposition A but opposed banning no-knock raids. “The city of Austin cannot tell the police chief how to run his department when it comes to safety,” he told the Austin American-Statesman, which reported that his union “believes federal law will cover the no-knock warrant aspect of the proposition.”
At the state level, lawmakers have already introduced measures, including House Bill 1272 and Bill 492, that would restrict no-knock raids. The latter would require no-knock warrants be issued by a district judge, and additionally require signed approval from a police chief or sheriff.
Federally, at least one bill proposed last year, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would restrict the use of no-knock raids.