Passing with 86 percent support, the measure was placed on the ballot by the Austin City Council after approval of the charter-amending ordinance in January. In Texas, possessing more than four ounces of marijuana is a felony. Anything less than that is a misdemeanor, separated into two categories.
Possession of between two and four ounces yields a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and up to a $4,000 fine. Two ounces or less constitutes a Class B misdemeanor, carrying with it up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine.
Under the new ordinance, the council is ordering Austin police not to issue arrests or citations for Class A or B misdemeanor possession but for the case of “a felony level narcotics case that has been designated as a high priority investigation by an Austin police commander, assistant chief of police, or chief of police.”
“[I]f an Austin police officer has probable cause to believe that a substance is marijuana, an officer may seize the marijuana,” the ordinance continues. If the officer seizes the marijuana, they must write a detailed report and release the individual if possession of marijuana is the sole charge.”
It also prohibits Class C misdemeanor citations for “possession of drug residue or drug paraphernalia…in lieu of a possession of marijuana charge.”
The final marijuana-related item of the ordinance prohibits the use of city funds or personnel to conduct tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive substance in marijuana — testing.
The second part of the proposition bans the use of no-knock warrants by police. “No Austin police officer may request, execute, or participate in the execution of any search warrant that does not require the officer to knock and announce their presence and wait at least 15 seconds prior to execution,” it reads.
Any officer who violates these new policies will be subject to discipline, according to the ordinances.
“The Austin Freedom Act is proof positive that when we put popular, progressive policies in front of voters, we can bring thousands of new voters into the fold and mobilize the electorate behind important change,” said Julie Oliver of Ground Game Texas, which led the campaign for its passage. In that effort, Oliver was joined by Mike Siegel, an attorney who ran as the Democratic candidate for Texas 10th Congressional District in 2020 and 2018.
The group collected more than 30,000 signatures to place the ordinance on the citywide ballot.
But according to some in the police ranks, its passage isn’t going to change much.
“The [APD policy] for low level marijuana changed well over a year ago, so Prop A doesn’t really change anything,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. “As for ‘No knock Warrants,” [w]hen lives are on the line, I’m sure APD will continue to use ‘No Knocks.’”
He said that the department averages three such instances per year.
The Austin Police Department did not respond to an inquiry about how much this ordinance will change its actual policies.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.