Deja Vu for Denton Voters After Pot Decriminalization Goes Up in Smoke | Dallas Observer

Deja Vu for Denton Voters After Pot Decriminalization Goes Up in Smoke

For the second time in less than a decade, the will of the people in Denton is being denied.
Denton passed a proposition to decriminalize pot that will not be honored as legal by the city leaders or police.
Denton passed a proposition to decriminalize pot that will not be honored as legal by the city leaders or police. Alicia Claytor/Sarah Schumacher
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Nick Stevens stood before the Denton City Council looking equally frustrated and determined. The activist had helped to lead the grassroots charge to decriminalize marijuana in the North Texas college town. Now he was there to defend Proposition B, which more than 71% of the city’s voters had supported in a high-turnout November vote.

Stevens and other activists with the group Decriminalize Denton had fought hard to pass one of the state’s first ordinances to decriminalize low-level marijuana offenses, but they received bad news the day after the election. Denton officials announced in a Nov. 9 memo that the city “does not have the authority to implement” some of Prop B’s provisions.

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Activist Nick Stevens led the movement to pass Proposition B in Denton.
Alicia Claytor
Facing council members during the Feb. 21 meeting, Stevens emphasized that even if they didn’t personally like the ordinance, they should still respect the will of Denton voters.

“That's what being a representative is all about,” Stevens said. “It's about listening to your constituents.”

Decriminalize Denton blasted the ordeal over Prop B as an “attack on democracy” in a press release. Advocates point to other Texas cities such as Austin that have implemented near-identical measures. Voters in San Marcos, Elgin, Harker Heights and Killeen similarly approved decriminalization during the midterm elections. But others have argued that the merits of the ordinance aside, the city of Denton’s hands are tied.

Prop B would mean, in part, that police could no longer issue citations or execute arrests for misdemeanor quantities of marijuana, except under certain limited circumstances. It would also bar law enforcement from using the “smell test,” meaning the scent of weed couldn’t serve as an excuse for search or seizure.

City Manager Sara Hensley explained during the Feb. 21 work session that Denton doesn’t have the authority to implement the parts of Prop B that run afoul of state law. She noted in her presentation that from Nov. 1 to Jan. 17, local officers made 52 citations and/or arrests related to pot or paraphernalia. (Prop B advocates have asked to see the demographic makeup of this, as did the Observer, but the police department didn’t respond to the request.)

Hensley argued that the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which mandates that police enforce state law, essentially supersedes the proposition. Denton’s police chief further vowed that the department would continue to make minor marijuana offenses a low priority.

To Deb Armintor of Decriminalize Denton, though, hearing the number of arrests and citations was “infuriating.”

“This is what they call ‘low priority’?” Armintor, a former Denton City Council member, told the Observer. “This is business as usual.”

Another local marijuana advocate spoke at the February meeting. Eva Grecco described how she went out day after day to gather enough signatures to place Prop B on the ballot. Many seniors can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on medications each month, she said, and marijuana is a viable alternative.

“‘The times, they are a’changing.’ I am a mother. I am a grandmother. I am a great-grandmother,” Grecco said. “I myself do not smoke marijuana, but I fought very hard for this Proposition B to pass.”

“That's what being a representative is all about. It's about listening to your constituents.” – Nick Stevens, Decriminalize Denton

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Grecco also tried to appeal to the council by noting that some members are themselves parents: “The more you fight the will of the people, these are the things your children will remember in the future.

“I'm just really angry — angry that all this time has gone by and certain members of this council and city manager have refused to listen or comply with the will of the people,” she continued. “Whether you like it or not, your personal choices do not matter. We do not vote for any of you for your personal choices.”

Grecco, Stevens, Armintor and the rest of Decriminalize Denton aren’t alone in their vexation. Some of the city’s voters have reported experiencing déjà vu. The battle over Prop B in uber-conservative Texas isn’t the first time that their voices have been muted following a landslide vote.

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Bess Whitby voted for the fracking ban in 2014 and for Proposition B.
Alicia Claytor
The Texas sun punished the protesters one brutally hot summer afternoon in 2015, the day that Cindy Spoon’s friends were arrested. One of the demonstrators, a 92-year-old Denton woman, rested in a rocking chair outside the drilling site. Her son chained himself to the gate, and her daughter-in-law, who was going through chemotherapy, planted herself in the driveway.

Spoon recalled her friends getting carted away by police but said she wasn’t worried about being arrested herself. Their purpose was too important.

“I think we all felt like we were defending our fracking ban,” Spoon said. “It was good to see people still fighting at that point.”

The Denton Drilling Awareness Group had turned its “Frack Free Denton” campaign into a movement. Spoon and other activists in the community, spanning various political affiliations, had come together with the same goal: to pass a local ban on hydraulic fracking, a controversial method of oil and natural gas extraction. Residents were concerned about fracking-related air and water pollution, plus the traffic, noise and safety and health hazards brought by drilling, the environmental digital outlet GreenSource DFW reported at the time.

Months before the arrests, in November 2014, fracking opponents were feeling hopeful: Nearly 59% of voters supported the ban, making Denton the first city in the state to pass such a measure.

Then came the legal battles.

The day after the fracking ban passed, two lawsuits were filed in Austin to challenge it, BBC reported at the time. Naysayers had argued that the ban infringed on the rights of mineral owners.

Many Denton residents viewed the college town as a liberal island in a sea of red, but Texas’ thirst for oil and gas was apparently too great for the ordinance to stay put. Before long, Gov. Greg Abbott had signed into law a statewide ban on local fracking bans.

In June 2015, a company began to drill within city limits, Spoon recalled. “Many of us that had been involved realized that we played by all the rules, we did the voting and it still wasn't enough,” she said — but the protests worked.

Coming together as a community to demonstrate in the Texas heat was effective in preventing any new fracking permits in the city, Spoon said. Today, she stands in solidarity with Decriminalize Denton and encourages its organizers to ready themselves for a fight.

Denton resident Bess Whitby voted for the fracking ban in 2014 and for Prop B last November. To the marketing specialist, prosecuting weed offenses doesn’t seem like a wise use of city resources, especially since it disproportionately targets marginalized community members. The Texas Tribune reported that between 2019 and 2020, roughly 35% of Denton arrests involved Black people — despite the fact that the city’s Black population is around 11%.

Whitby said she was angry and disappointed but not surprised to learn that Denton would not implement Prop B. “I am just really tired of being represented by people who are unwilling to enforce the things that are voted on,” she said.      

This latest experience was a letdown for Whitby, but it also served as motivation to hold officials’ feet to the fire.

“I hope we can all remember that there are a lot of us,” she said. “It can feel very deflating, but there are so, so many people in this county and in this state who want this to happen.”

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At Smoke N Chill, Colin Ross listens to frustrated customers talk about Prop B.
Alicia Claytor
City Manager Hensley’s presentation neatly laid out the anti-Prop B arguments. She explained that municipalities and police departments can’t adopt policies that don’t “fully enforce state and federal laws relating to drugs.” She and the police chief couldn’t “direct otherwise,” she noted, pointing to other Texas cities that have faced skirmishes over similar ordinances. Officials in Bell County recently voted to sue Killeen, for instance, and the Harker Heights City Council cited its ordinance’s conflict with state law as reason to repeal.

Legalization rumblings have started shaking up the Texas Capitol, though. House Bill 218 by Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso would slash penalties for cannabis possession. Last week, a legislative panel unanimously voted to advance the bill.

The burgeoning cannabis industry is proving to be quite lucrative. According to the Marijuana Policy Project advocacy organization, legal-weed states as of last March reported a combined tax revenue of $11.2 billion from the sale of legal cannabis. Meanwhile, marijuana-loving Texans often drive to other states to get their green, with dispensaries near the border attracting droves of customers. New Mexico shops closest to the Texas state line raked in more than $775,000 in recreational cannabis sales during their first weekend, according to Albuquerque Business First. Some say ignoring legal marijuana is a major miss for Texas’ business-minded Legislature.

“I hope we can all remember that there are a lot of us.” – Bess Whitby, Denton resident

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Colin Ross, a morning shift manager at the Smoke N Chill smoke shop in Denton, recalled voting for Prop B with others from his store. He said that he’s since spoken with customers who aren’t happy to learn the measure hasn’t been implemented.

Decriminalizing weed in Denton would have been a great step toward progress in the Lone Star State, he said. The ordinance would help reassure Ross’ customers that they can buy what they need there without fear of prosecution.

Ross predicts that Texas will eventually realize how much money is leaving the state and decide that it’s smarter to embrace legalization. “The amount of people who come into my shop every day and are asking for delta products, asking for CBD products, things that help them medically, it grows more and more every single day,” Ross said.

Phillip James Carter was somewhat optimistic when he first heard about Prop B and “infuriated” after it all but went up in smoke. He’s a second-generation marijuana grower who farms in Oklahoma, and members of his family have faced legal trouble over the product. Carter himself has spent time behind bars. “I've been incarcerated over five times simply over some plant matter,” he said. “I'm not a bad guy. I haven't done anything wrong. So, for them to actually take the steps to put forward that [proposition], I mean, that was everything to me.”

Even though marijuana is outlawed at the federal level, 21 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized it recreationally. Two of Texas’ bordering states, Oklahoma and Arkansas, recently rejected pushes to follow suit while other neighboring states have chosen to take the plunge. To know that Denton is “backtracking hurts [his] heart,” Carter said. One way or another, though, Texas will have to get with the program.

“The system is going to have loopholes and people are going to find a way to bring it,” he said. “Near Amarillo, people get it from New Mexico. If you go over towards El Paso, people are going to get it from Arizona. Go to the opposite side of Texas, they're going to get it from Louisiana.

“There's no truly fighting this,” he continued, “so instead of going against us as the citizens and populace, I wish they would just be proactive with us.”

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Deb Armintor is an activist with Decriminalize Denton after having served on Denton City Council.
Alicia Claytor
Armintor of Decriminalize Denton first got active in local politics after the town’s council repealed the fracking ban in June 2015. City officials claimed at the time they had no other choice because of state law, but Armintor disagrees.

“That was the thing that made me an activist in Denton: that attack on our democracy,” she said. “And since then, I've just been nonstop involved.”

Armintor eventually ran for and served on Denton City Council but decided not to seek reelection last year. To her, blaming the state isn’t a sound excuse to not implement Prop B, which she says was “expressly written” to conform to Texas law. She also said that similar ordinances in Austin and Elgin have been running smoothly since they passed and classified the potential legal challenges faced by other participating Texas cities as “frivolous.”

Armintor noted that weed decriminalization is popular among folks across the political spectrum. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a flamboyantly conservative firebrand, even supports the idea of legal medical marijuana, as do a whopping 82% of Texans, according to polls.

Reading the city manager’s report was “enraging” to Armintor. She alleges that information was omitted, such as the fact that Austin’s ordinance hasn’t faced major issues, likening it to “gaslighting.”

The progressive group Ground Game Texas partnered with advocates in Denton and other cities to help lead the decriminalization campaign. Mike Siegel, the group's co-founder and general counsel, agrees that Prop B is enforceable. City councils in Texas often adopt ordinances that may face legal challenges, he said, but they can press on until a judge tells them otherwise.

“You can see how the city manager is disrespecting the people as policymakers, even though the Texas Constitution and the city charter of Denton guarantees the people the policy-making rule,” he said. “Because the city manager is treating the people's vote as something less than our regular city council vote, and that's not how it should be under the law.”

The way Siegel sees it, voters should have been advised of legal risks prior to hitting the ballot box, but afterward? “Once they voted, that should be respected like any other ordinance in the city code.”

Denton City Council member Jesse Davis said the council has known for a long time that much of the measure is incompatible with state law. Davis told the Observer that parts of the ordinance, like the budgetary provisions, can’t be enacted by referendum. “Otherwise, you'd have people voting on referendums like: The tax rate is zero, the city budget only goes to fix the streets in my neighborhood,” he said.

City council members can’t simply ignore that Texas law exists and they can’t tell the police which rules to enforce, Davis said. But members are ready to focus on what they can do moving forward instead of what they can’t.

The democratic process isn’t just polls and referenda and headcounts; it includes representative democracy, Davis said. Each city council member was elected by the people, and each took an oath to uphold the laws of the U.S. and state constitutions.

Davis said a number of his constituents have contacted him about Prop B.

“I had to have some frank conversations with them about where we fall in the hierarchy of legislation,” he said. “And I'm very frustrated by some folks out there in the community who know better, or should know better, [who are] misleading people about our role in the scheme of laws and statutes in the state of Texas.”

Davis will face a recall on May 6, the same day he’s up for reelection, after detractors circulated a petition that partly claims he’d ignored “the will of over 32,000 Dentonites” when it comes to the ordinance. He contests that assertion as “factually inaccurate” and said he’s confident that voters will cast their ballot based on his record.

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Smoke 'em if you got 'em at Smoke N Chill.
Alicia Claytor
Decriminalize Denton’s Stevens remembers the wave of catharsis that swept over him, the flood of warm tears. He describes himself as a rule-follower and devout Catholic, yet he found immense relief by way of a plant that’s still illegal in many states. The day after he started using marijuana, he estimates that he uncontrollably sobbed for around two hours.

“It was just like this release of trauma I was holding onto that I didn't know how to let go of,” he said.

A series of experiences dating to Stevens’ childhood, such as sexual assault and traumatic surgeries, left him with PTSD. He’d tried many prescription drugs and nothing seemed to help. Antidepressants rendered Stevens unable to even feel his sadness, he said, describing it as a “really torturous feeling.”

“You can see how the city manager is disrespecting the people as policymakers..." – Mike Siegel, Ground Game Texas

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“So you know, being able to use something that — excuse me,” Stevens said, his throat catching, “doesn't make me feel that way, but allows me to objectively see the situations I'm in and how to healthily cope with them; have a full night's rest and not have to wake up with nightmares; learn how to have healthier relationships with friends and loved ones and family; learn how to have a healthier relationship with my wife; unfortunately, for me, pharmaceutical medication didn't do that.”

It’s been tough on Stevens to be one of the faces of the Decriminalize Denton movement, particularly given his religious background. He said the stigma attached to marijuana has been hard to overcome. But for him it’s important to forge ahead as people with less means are imprisoned over small quantities of the plant. It strikes him as unfair that some marijuana users can afford to sign up for Texas’ Compassionate Use Program — which, as a patient himself, costs Stevens thousands of dollars per year — while others who are less fortunate must continue to risk their freedom.

Carter, the grower, has also witnessed cannabis’ health benefits when it comes to his mother, whose cancer is now in remission. “The fact of the matter is that my 65-year-old mother, who can be driving down the road, simply for having medicine in her car, can be arrested. That's just an outrage. It’s literally just herbal matter.”

Marijuana advocates like Stevens see the Lone Star State as stuck in the Stone Age. Texas is losing out on tax dollars that could go toward public education or fixing the rickety power grid, he said. For Stevens, the push for the decriminalization — and eventually, legalization — of marijuana is deeply personal, but it’s also rooted in compassion. He knows how much it’s helped him and just wants the same for others. Whatever its ultimate fate, Prop B was a good first step toward that goal. “The medicine for me is life and death; it's a life-and-death medication,” Stevens said. “The medication is about the dignity that all people deserve: to not suffer.”
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