Texas activists announced on June 3 that they’ve collected more than enough signatures to qualify an initiative to decriminalize marijuana for the local ballot in Harker Heights. That’s the fifth city in the state so far in which organizers say they’ll be able to put cannabis reform before voters this November, and the move comes just about a month after a similar decriminalization measure passed in Austin.
Now, advocates with the progressive group Ground Game Texas say they’ve exceeded the threshold of gathering valid signatures from more than 25 percent of registered voters to qualify the measure in Harker Heights for the upcoming midterm election.
“Following the success of Prop A in Austin and the recent securing of ballot initiatives in Killeen and San Marcos, Ground Game Texas is proud to give Harker Heights residents the opportunity to decriminalize marijuana,” Julie Oliver, the organization’s executive director, said in a press release.
“Ground Game Texas continues to demonstrate that popular policies around issues like workers, wages and weed can help expand and electrify the electorate in Texas when they’re put directly in front of voters.”
The Harker Heights Freedom Act would, if enacted, would mandate that “police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses,” except in limited circumstances such as when investigating a violent felony or a felony-level narcotics case that has been “designated as a high priority investigation” by a top police official.
Also, the measure says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge. And they could not use the odor of cannabis alone as probable cause for a search or seizure.
City officials will need to formally authorize that the signatures are valid to ensure that the measure reaches the ballot.
The Harker Heights initiative is a part of a broader activist-led effort to enact cannabis policy reform one city at a time since there is no process for citizens to put initiatives on the statewide ballot.
Austin voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to decriminalize marijuana, in addition to banning no-knock warrants by police, at the local level in May. That was also the product of Ground Game Texas’s campaign work.
On June 1, the group and its allies with the criminal justice reform organization Mano Amiga said they submitted more than enough signatures to put marijuana decriminalization on the ballot in San Marcos.
In late May, the Ground Game Texas said activists amassed enough signatures to put a decriminalization proposal before voters in Killeen.
Meanwhile, activists also recently announced that they have collected enough signatures to place cannabis decriminalization on the November ballot in Denton.
And, organizers said recently that they have submitted enough signatures to qualify a measure to decriminalize cannabis in Elgin.
In each jurisdiction, local officials on city councils will have the opportunity to simply enact the proposals as municipal law instead of allowing the measures to go to the ballot.
While localized, the success so far shows a strong desire to move away from marijuana criminalization.
Activists are also looking ahead to qualifying cannabis measures in additional cities in 2023 and 2024, though they haven’t publicly announced specific targets.
While localized, the success of the signature gathering and votes that have taken place so far under the leadership of activists shows a strong desire to move away from marijuana criminalization in the Lone Star State.
On the same day that the Austin reform initiative was certified for ballot access earlier in 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over low-level marijuana possession. However, he misstated state statute on decriminalization, suggesting that the policy is already in place.
While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related charges by issuing citations and summons, the ordinances that Ground Game Texas and other activists have been pursuing go further.
There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like marijuana decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.
A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use. A separate survey released in May found that cannabis legalization is more popular in Texas than the state’s top elected officials and President Joe Biden.
Drug policy reform did advance in the 2021 legislative sesssion, but not at the pace advocates had hoped.
Drug policy reform did advance in the state legislature during the 2021 session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.
A 2021 Texas poll found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”
Separately, the state Supreme Court heard testimony in March 2022 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.
Photograph via Texas Department of Public Safety