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Group launches effort to put decriminalizing pot, ban on no-knock warrants on Austin’s November ballot

Thursday, July 1, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Austin effectively decriminalized marijuana last year. The city also effectively banned no-knock warrants, the controversial police tactic that led to the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson.

But those policies are more or less guidelines; they’re not formally enshrined in the city’s charter.

A group of city leaders, criminal justice advocates and political operatives wants to change that, and has begun a petition drive to get those measures on the ballot in November.

At an event Wednesday morning, Mike Siegel, political director for the progressive voting rights nonprofit Ground Game Texas, said the effort aims both to draw voters to the polls and to address disparities in criminal justice and policing.

“What we’re trying to do is advance the cause of criminal justice reform, moving away from biased police practices … that disproportionately target Black and Latino communities,” Siegel said, “and we’re also trying to get voters excited to participate in local politics.”

Siegel was joined by fellow former Democratic congressional candidate and Ground Game co-founder Julie Oliver and Austin City Council members Vanessa Fuentes and Greg Casar.

Casar pushed for the Council-directed decriminalization of pot and the no-knock warrant ban, both of which were met with pushback from the Austin Police Department, which said it must follow state law, not City Council decree. The ballot proposition, if passed, would require compliance on the part of APD, as it would put both the ban on no-knock warrants and the mandate to halt marijuana arrests in the city’s charter.

Despite some movement on legalizing pot at the state level, it’s still an illicit substance in Texas. Asked whether the decriminalization effort would run afoul of state law, Casar said he didn’t believe it would. He said cities can amend their own charters and Austin voters should be able to prioritize what issues the city should focus on.

“We have way more serious issues to deal with. We want to address affordability. We want to address civil rights. We want to address safety,” he said, in front of the Willie Nelson statue outside the ACL Live theater downtown. “And under state law, the voters have the authority to say, let’s not spend millions of dollars in the city of Willie Nelson to be chasing people around for pot.”

The push is the latest example of a now common tactic using the power of the petition to tweak, reinstate or throw out divisive city policies in Austin. To do so, citizens must first get 20,000 valid signatures from Austin residents on a petition. Those signatures are then submitted to the city clerk for verification. If they’re valid, the measure is put on a citywide ballot.

The practice has been around for decades, and since 2016, when ride-hailing regulations were put to Austin voters through petition-backed referendum, they’ve become increasingly common. The most recent example of the tactic’s success is Proposition B, the petition that reinstated Austin’s ban on public encampments and certain behavior related to homelessness.

The same GOP-backed group which supported that measure has put forth another petition that, if passed, would mandate APD maintain certain staffing levels, in response to the city’s decision last year to cut and reallocate the department’s budget. That decision attracted response from the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature this year, and it’s likely this effort could draw the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott, as well.

Asked if she believed the effort would be a lightning rod for Abbott or other GOP detractors, Kathy Mitchell, policy coordinator for the criminal justice advocacy group Just Liberty, said the issue of legalizing marijuana isn’t like police funding. It’s not a one-party issue, and it has support from the majority of Texas voters.

“I do not believe that it would be clever or useful for the Republican leadership to make this into a big thing when many, many jurisdictions would like to do this, as well,” she said. “When people see it working here, they may want to have it work somewhere else.”

Ground Game says, so far, it’s gathered more than 3,000 signatures ahead of the cutoff for signatures at the end of July.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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