Austin City Council Unanimously Approves Resolution to Stop Criminal Penalties for Low-Level Cannabis Possession

Despite the city council’s unanimous decision to decriminalize marijuana, Austin’s police chief made it clear the state law will still be enforced.

In a unanimous vote, the Austin City Council on Jan. 23 approved a resolution that halts police in the city from arresting or giving citations for low-level, non-violent cannabis possession. The resolution also stops local police from using city funds to conduct lab testing on low-level cannabis cases.

In response, Austin’s police chief Brian Manley spoke on the matter during a press conference the following day letting citizens know his officers would continue to enforce state marijuana laws.

“[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” Manley said.

The chief made it clear he won’t be taking orders on the situation from the city council, stating during the press conference that “a City Council does not have the authority to tell a police department not to enforce a state law.”

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the resolution, said the council’s decision acts as a guarantee that the low-level cannabis citations will come with no penalty. Essentially the tickets will be “meaningless pieces of paper, and any arrests will result in a quick release with no charges accepted from prosecutors,” he told The Texas Tribune after the news conference.

“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.

Texas’ Hemp Law Makes Marijuana Prosecution More Difficult

The resolution from the Austin City Council was propelled by a new Texas law regarding hemp. Following the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill by President Donald Trump, Texas lawmakers removed hemp from the state’s list of controlled substances.

The unintended consequences of the hemp amendment can be seen in the sharp drop in cannabis prosecution across the state. That is because law enforcement is not able to easily identify if an individual is in possession of hemp, which is a non-intoxicating variety of Cannabis sativa L. with a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level of less than 0.3%, or marijuana, the intoxicating THC cannabis variety.

So far, Texas labs have yet to find a reliable way to test hemp versus marijuana, and most can only detect whether THC is present, not the amount or concentration. This has led to a backlog of district attorney prosecutions of low-level cannabis cases. As a result, some law enforcement agencies have determined it’s pointless to use resources to prosecute low-level possession.

According to a recent Texas Tribune report, misdemeanor marijuana cases have dropped by half since the new hemp amendment was made law. Many Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, now require that police submit lab reports on a substance’s THC amount before moving forward on misdemeanor cannabis charges.

Read up on current Texas laws at our Texas Marijuana Laws education page.

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