Try, Try Again: Decriminalizing Cannabis Could End Up on Ballot in Denton City Election

As the law stands in Denton now, you can still get cited for misdemeanor amounts of cannabis.
As the law stands in Denton now, you can still get cited for misdemeanor amounts of cannabis. Malen Blackmon
Cannabis reform has moved at a snail's pace in Texas. But activists are trying to speed things up by fighting for reform at the city and county levels. A group called Decriminalize Denton has twice tried to get an ordinance through City Council that would end citations and arrests for misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. Both times, the ordinance didn’t get the votes it needed from council members.

Now, Decriminalize Denton is trying to get the ordinance passed by a ballot initiative during the November 2022 city election. But first, they’ve got to get it on the ballot. To do that, they need at least 1,745 signatures. They’re aiming for 3,000.

They’ll start collecting those signatures during a kick-off event at noon on Feb. 19 outside the historic courthouse on Denton's downtown square.

“Help us give Denton voters a chance to decide our city's future on this key criminal justice issue that has plagued our community for far too long,” the group said in a post on Facebook.

Representatives for Decriminalize Denton, UNT Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Texas Cannabis Collective will all be speaking at the event.

If the ordinance makes it on the ballot and is passed, Denton police officers could only cite or arrest for misdemeanor possession if it’s part of a broader, high-priority narcotics case or whenever a felony is involved. It would also get rid of class C misdemeanor citations for possession of drug residue or drug paraphernalia. Additionally, THC tests could only be ordered under special conditions, like when a violent felony is involved.

Both times they tried to get the ordinance through City Council, they did so with the help of council member Deb Armintor. The first time, the group was working with a conservative majority council. The group thought it would have more luck the second time around in January with a liberal majority council. But, the results weren’t any different, Tristan Seikel, organizer and co-founder of Decriminalize Denton, said.

“As we’ve seen with both the conservative majority and now a liberal majority on council, we don’t have a council right now that’s willing to move forward with something more encompassing, like a complete decriminalization ordinance,” Seikel said. “That’s why we have pivoted now to going a ballot route. The good news about that is we’re not alone in doing this.”

"We want to make sure that when we change the laws here, we do so in an equitable way." – Tristan Seikel, Decriminalize Denton

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Seikel said there are a lot of other campaigns looking to adopt similar ordinances through ballot initiatives. For example, a group called Ground Game Texas recently got the Austin Freedom Act placed on the May 7 uniform election ballot in Austin. The law would stop enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses and ban “no-knock” warrants in the city.

With these ordinances, they hope to achieve de facto decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis. Of course, they want legalization, Seikel said, but decriminalization should come first.

“We want de facto decriminalization as an A priority, more important to us than legalization because we’ve seen in many states where they’ve legalized but they haven’t focused on the justice component,” he said. “That’s left a lot of cannabis prisoners and a lot of people unjustly suffering in jail while other people, usually rich white folks, come into the market and dominate it and don’t have that same history of being persecuted by those same laws. So, we want to make sure that when we change the laws here, we do so in an equitable way.”

For them, that looks like fighting for decriminalization at the same time as legalization or before. “But it has to be included with that conversation,” he said.

Seikel said November 2022 would be perfect timing for the ordinance because it’s around the same time Attorney General Ken Paxton is up for re-election.

“It would be amazing if we could potentially get some local decriminalization passed in Denton, while at the same time voting out a key state actor who has unilaterally prevented bi-partisan cannabis bills from going forward at the state legislature level,” Seikel said. “So, 2022 could be an exciting year for Texas cannabis activists.”

As the group prepares for the event next weekend, it is also looking for volunteers to help gather signatures. The group created a volunteer form for people who may be interested in helping.

“We just need to get as many petitioners as possible to help us out,” he said. “If you have connections in Denton or you know people who are registered to vote in Denton, we absolutely need your help.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn

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