The Austin City Council voted unanimously last month to decriminalize low-level marijuana offenses on a city-wide level. Despite the Council’s move towards decriminalization, Austin’s Police Chief Brian Manley has maintained that cannabis-related arrests will continue. Just one day after the City Council vote, Chief Manley held a press conference. “[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” said Manely. “A City Council does not have the authority to tell a police department not to enforce a state law,” added Manley. The announcement by Chief Manley directly contradicts the resolution passed by the City Council, namely, that Austin city residents will no longer be persecuted by the criminal justice system for minor marijuana possession. Since as early as July of 2019, the city of Austin, Texas has had a policy of “cite-and-release” for those caught with under four ounces of cannabis, which is considered a misdemeanor. A memo released last summer by the Texas Department of Public Safety reads:
“Department personnel are expected to continue enforcing marijuana related offenses. However, effective immediately, personnel will cite and release for any misdemeanor amount of marijuana.”
According to current state law, Austin city residents charged with misdemeanor possession face up to a year in jail, along with a fine of up to four thousand dollars. That isn’t to say that the resolution won’t make any difference: it will. “What has changed since yesterday is that enforcement, almost in virtually all cases, is now handing someone a piece of paper with no penalty or no court date,” said City Council Member, Greg Casar, in an interview with The Texas Tribune. According to Casar, the City Council has requested a policy review from the Austin Police Department (ADP), with the goal of “get[ting] as close to eliminating low-level marijuana arrests as possible.” With the passage of H.B. 1325, i.e. the Hemp Bill, back in 2018, hemp containing less than 0.3% THC became legal across the country. Moreover, the onus is now on the government to prove that any alleged marijuana confiscated is, in fact, marijuana and not just hemp. Under the City Council’s new resolution, lab testing to confirm tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content is explicitly reserved for felony-level marijuana cases. The resolution prohibits the use of city funds for lab testing in cases involving misdemeanor possession. What this really means is that the city is no longer allowed to waste taxpayer funds to prosecute those charged with low-level cannabis possession. Council Member Casar has expressed strong support for marijuana legalization on the statewide level as well. “As a sponsor of the item, I think the state of Texas should come out of the Stone Ages and not only decriminalize but legalize marijuana in the state. But between here and then, I think that what we did…was the most a city council can do to reduce the life-derailing impact of low-level possession charges,” said Casar.