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By the end of Election Day, five Texas cities have voted to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.
After Austin voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana in May, Ground Game Texas — the progressive group behind that effort — successfully worked with local organizations and pushed for similar measures to appear on the ballots of Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights for the midterms cycle.
Voters in these cities have now shown strong support for the proposals at the polls.
The campaign saw the highest level of support in San Marcos — home to Texas State University — with nearly 82% of the votes. Denton, which has several university campuses, saw more than 70% of the votes backing the proposition.
In Killeen, known for its proximity to military base Fort Hood, close to 70% of voters approved the proposition. Elgin, just outside of Austin, saw almost 75% of votes in support of the reform. And on the low end, more than 60% of voters in Harker Heights in Bell County casted ballots in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.
“These meaningful reforms will keep people out of jail and save scarce public resources for more important public safety needs,” said Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas and a former Democrat congressional candidate. “We’re extremely happy with our results.”
Like Austin’s ordinance, the successful propositions establish city ordinances that end low-level enforcement, including citations and arrests for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana and related drug paraphernalia, in most cases. They also largely ban using city funds and staff to test substances for THC, the cannabis plant’s chemical that gets users high.
The proposals are possible because these are home-rule cities — jurisdictions that are able to create ordinances if they are not explicitly forbidden by Texas or federal law.
The state currently treats the substances differently depending on their level of THC. For example, it legalized hemp, which has less THC than marijuana, in 2019. Then in 2021, the Texas House approved a bill to reduce penalties for minor marijuana possession, but it died in the Senate.
Last month, President Joe Biden also issued pardons for all federal marijuana possession cases and called on states to do the same. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was reelected Tuesday, did not directly say if the state would follow suit, but he has previously shown support for lessening penalties for low-level marijuana possession.
Ultimately, Ground Game Texas hoped to use the campaign to boost turnout, especially among young voters.
“We wanted to use workers, wages and weed to engage new voters,” Siegel said.
Looking ahead, Ground Game Texas will continue working with on-the-ground groups to place progressive measures on local ballots. They aim to put the measure along with several other propositions, including abortion decriminalization, in front of San Antonio voters in May 2023. And similar efforts are likely to pop up in other big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston in the 2024 elections, Siegel added.
“We’re hoping that we can prove not only that these issues are popular, but they also boosted turnout in the communities that are on the ballot,” he said. “And in the days following this election, we’re going to be having lots of conversations with folks about the next cycle.”
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit statewide news organization dedicated to keeping Texans informed on politics and policy issues that impact their communities. This election season, Texans around the state will turn to The Texas Tribune for the information they need on voting, election results, analysis of key races and more. Get the latest.