The city council in Austin, Texas approved a resolution last week to end enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses, but the city’s police chief says that the department will continue to issue tickets and make arrests for possession of small amounts of pot.
On Thursday, the city council passed a resolution directing the police department not to spend public resources on expensive lab tests that are now necessary to prosecute marijuana crimes. Since the legalization of hemp under federal and Texas state law, many prosecutors in the state are no longer filing charges in marijuana cases without lab test results that show a THC concentration higher than 0.3%. The Austin measure prevents such testing except in cases carrying felony charges.
Councilmember Greg Casar said before the vote that the resolution would help end the collateral damage caused by convictions for minor marijuana crimes.
“We know that too many Austinites have had their lives derailed by a low-level marijuana offense,” Casar said during a press conference on Tuesday. “People have lost their jobs, they could lose their student financial aid, families could even be separated by deportation when we overly enforce low-level offenses that could result in arrests or warrants.”
Casar also noted the racial bias prevalent in the enforcement of laws prohibiting cannabis.
“It’s time to do the right thing,” he added. “It’s the right thing for criminal justice reform … and it’s the right thing for racial equity.”
Cops Respond to Council Action
Immediately after Thursday’s vote to approve the council resolution, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the department would consider how the decision would affect department policy.
“We will look at our policies in regard to the resolution that just passed to determine what, if any, changes we need to make,” said Manley.
But by the next day, Manley said that the department’s policy on marijuana enforcement would not change.
“[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” he said during a news conference on Friday afternoon.
The chief added that enforcement of low-level marijuana crimes has not been a priority for the department but officers would continue to make arrests or write tickets under its cite and release policy if they “come across it.”
After the chief’s announcement, Casar said that any tickets written by officers would be meaningless and anyone arrested would be quickly released without charges being filed by prosecutors.
“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,” Casar said.