Marijuana, abortion make San Antonio May ballot, but city attorney says ‘decriminalization’ efforts aren’t enforceable

‘SA Justice Charter’ gets 20,973 signatures verified

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio voters will decide on a sweeping city charter amendment in the May 6 election, with an effort to decriminalize marijuana and abortion at its center.

However, the city attorney said most of the proposed changes wouldn’t be enforceable, and the city would not try to.

A City of San Antonio spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday evening that the city clerk had verified 20,973 petition signatures supporting the “San Antonio Justice Charter” -- more than the 20,000 required to get it onto the ballot. The San Antonio City Council is expected to officially order the election during its Feb. 16 meeting.

“We’re super excited and happy that we’re going to be on the ballot but know that we have a lot of work ahead to educate and mobilize our community and look forward to having those conversations,” said Act 4 SA Executive Director Ananda Tomas, whose group led the coalition trying to get the issue onto the ballot.

Tomas said although the proposal goes against state law, it can be fought.

”We saw the city fight for sanctuary city and against (Senate Bill 4), and they did that knowing there might be a challenge from the state, knowing that was coming but that was worth it to them,” she said.

Decriminalizing abortion and marijuana possession are the centerpieces, but the 13-page charter amendment would also make existing policies permanent, like the cite-and-release program, and bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants -- and even expand some of them.

It would also create a new “Justice Director” position, which could not be filled by anyone with law enforcement experience.

“Somebody that can hold some of those conversations with immigration rights groups or disability rights groups and policing and come up with better policy,” Tomas said, describing the position.

READ MORE: Activists want marijuana & abortion decriminalization on May 2023 ballot

In a press conference Wednesday evening, though, City Attorney Andy Segovia said of the six changes proposed in the charter amendment, only the justice director position and associated “justice policy” would actually be able to be implemented.

The other amendments, he said, are governed by state law and are unenforceable.

“So to emphasize, the petition -- even if adopted by the voters -- will not legalize marijuana. It will not legalize abortion. It will not create a complete ban on choke holds. It will not change the established process and procedures under state law for obtaining warrants. And it will not remove the discretion that San Antonio policemen have to either cite or arrest somebody for all these crimes.”

“I don’t think reasonable minds can differ that these things are absolutely inconsistent with state law,” he said.

However, Segovia said the city would not block the proposed amendments from making it onto the ballot.

Tomas had this message for voters:

“We’re not only putting the conversation out there, but we as a community are taking a vote and letting our city leadership from now ‘til the future, know how we feel about this and what they need to fight for.”

State law restricts cities from changing their charters more frequently than every two years. So if voters approve the amendment - enforceable or not - the charter could not be changed again until 2025.

Tomas had previously said the marijuana decriminalization aspect was the biggest reason people were signing onto the ballot, “but honestly, two-thirds of the folks that have signed for us are women, showing that the abortion piece is also the second-most-popular option.”

The San Antonio Police Association has already indicated it plans to oppose the charter effort.

“The main concern is it’s chipping away at discretion. It’s chipping away at the tools of the trade that officers have to their - to be able to use to the best of their ability to make sure that they save lives,” San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz said in January.

The union has plenty of cash on hand to fight, too, reporting a balance of $297,000 as of Jan. 25 in its latest campaign finance report.

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

John Paul Barajas is a reporter at KSAT 12. Previously, he worked at KRGV 5 in the Rio Grande Valley. He has a degree from the University of Houston. In his free time, he likes to get a workout in, spend time on the water and check out good eats and drinks.

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