“The state created the local governments, not the other way around.”
These assertions are widely repeated in Texas politics today — whether it’s surrounding sanctuary city discussions (in all its variations), the property tax debate, and even more recently, Austin’s homelessness situation.
The lattermost is a focal point of the latest state versus local government argument — but in this case, the debate is specifically between Austin and its flagship university: the University of Texas.
In late January, the Austin City Council voted to pull funding from the Austin Police Department for testing suspected-marijuana samples — effectively legalizing low-level possession of a drug that remains illegal statewide. The move was aimed at preventing low-level possession offenders — many of which are homeless, but are not the entirety of the targeted population — from being subject to jail time.
In the 86th Session, Governor Greg Abbott signed HB 1325 which legalized hemp.
One of the rationales some opponents to the bill used as cause for concern was the creation of this exact predicament — hemp and marijuana are difficult to distinguish by officers in the field and so oftentimes must be tested (which can be very expensive) — effectively pricing police departments out of marijuana enforcement.
Those tests can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete.
The reasoning behind the price-out is that every sample of suspected marijuana must be tested to see if it’s hemp in order to prosecute. Cities such as Austin have responded by effectively directing their police departments to stop low-level drug possession enforcement.
Thus, bringing yet another local/state clash. With Austin neglecting the enforcement of state policy on marijuana, the University of Texas Police Department (UTPD) has indicated it will continue to enforce the state drug laws since it is a state-controlled entity and receives its funding, including that for the marijuana/hemp tests, from the state rather than the City of Austin.
The cost of those tests vary.
In comments to The Daily Texan, the school newspaper for the university, UTPD stated that state forensic labs “typically only conduct tests for felony cases of possession.” But a UTPD representative told The Texan the “option remains to have any substance or quantity [of, in this case, marijuana] tested in a lab.”
Felonious possession of marijuana is only applied with four ounces or more in quantity. Anything below that is some class of misdemeanor.
According to UTPD, their jurisdiction spans “all counties in which property is owned, leased, rented, or otherwise under the control of the University of Texas.”
Being state-sanctioned peace officers, UTPD is not limited to jurisdiction over those affiliated with the university.
According to UTPD, “When the University of Texas at Austin Police officers deal with individuals that possess marijuana, they have the ability, per state law, to arrest or issue a written citation for any useable amount. Officers may ask a person if the substance is marijuana or use a drug test kit that allows them to detect the presence of THC.”
There is a lot of discretion involved in policing and this is no different.
UTPD and APD work together often on situations involving students and non-affiliated individuals alike both on and off campus.
When asked whether this new policy will affect that relationship, a UTPD representative stated it would not and the relationship between organizations “is important and they continue to work together in a professional manner.”
Possible confusion over the enforcement discrepancy students may experience has concerned some. A couple of students expressed their concerns over the changing marijuana laws to The Daily Texan.
Despite the choice by the City of Austin to forgo enforcement of marijuana possession laws, the drug remains illegal both statewide and federally.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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.