Drugs

Denton City Council Considers Decriminalizing Misdemeanor Amounts of Weed

Last year, the Dallas Police Department also tapped the brakes on misdemeanor weed possession charges by changing its general orders.
Last year, the Dallas Police Department also tapped the brakes on misdemeanor weed possession charges by changing its general orders. Jacob Vaughn
Depending on how things shake out this afternoon, Denton could be getting a little greener. Weed decriminalization is officially up for consideration.

In November, Denton City Council member Deb Armintor pitched an ordinance dubbed the Denton Responsible Reformation of Cannabis Enforcement Act of 2021. At a meeting that month, Armintor had two minutes to persuade four other council members to approve the ordinance for discussion at a future work session by the council.

The ordinance would eliminate all arrests and citations for possession of misdemeanor amounts of weed. Under the ordinance, the Denton Police Department would only cite or arrest people for the misdemeanor if it’s part of a broader, high-priority felony narcotics case or when a felony is involved.

During her pitch, Armintor said, “We must act now if we wish to live up to our city values of inclusivity and innovation.”

The City Council approved the ordinance for further consideration with a 5-2 vote, and it’s up for discussion during its work session Tuesday.

The ordinance was drafted by Decriminalize Denton, a local cannabis advocacy organization. “If they are able to get a consensus at this meeting, there would only be one more final council meeting after that to make the change official,” Decriminalize Denton wrote on Facebook.

Tristan Seikel, the group’s organizer and cofounder, said the council will get the chance to hear from the Denton Police Department chief, who will go over the current procedure for enforcing cannabis laws. Seikel told the Observer that while he thinks Chief Frank Dixon has been instrumental in helping move the conversation forward, he said he’s not sure yet how he feels about the proposed ordinance.

“There is no easy way for a city in Texas to ‘decriminalize’ marijuana.” – Jesse Davis, Denton City Council

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Once they hear from the police chief, the council members will discuss what they can do to either implement the Decriminalize Denton ordinance, revise it or do something different entirely. “Under the assumption that we’re able to get a majority on council to agree to what that language would be, then it can go to just one more final session to be voted on and enacted into the official policy,” Seikel said.

The mayor and Paul Meltzer voted against bringing the issue to the work session. Seikel said they, as well as council member Jesse Davis, could be the biggest obstacles on the council to getting their ordinance approved.

“The other challenge is just to ensure that the other City Council members who I’ve worked with on the issue kind of maintain the convictions that they have highlighted in the past,” he said. “So, as long as they remain true to what they’ve already told us, we feel very confident that we still have that majority lead here.”

But he’s still worried that their ordinance could get turned down or turned into something less substantial.

Seikel said they’ve already had to make sacrifices in their ordinance, like not including THC concentrates. “We are comfortable with some alteration, but I really feel like what we’re asking for right now is still a watered down version of what needs to be done,” he said.

On top of decriminalizing possession of misdemeanor amounts of weed, the ordinance would do away with class C misdemeanor citations for possession of drug residue or drug paraphernalia. Additionally, the city would be prohibited from using funds to “request, conduct, or obtain THC testing of any cannabis-related substance” to determine if they contain illegal amounts of THC. These tests could only be conducted under special circumstances, like when a violent felony is involved.

Council member Jesse Davis wanted to get more feedback from locals on the issue. He voted in favor of bringing the ordinance to this week’s work session, but he has some reservations about decriminalizing misdemeanor amounts of weed in Denton.

Davis told the Observer he thinks the city has done a good job at fairly enforcing the existing laws. As a result, he said, "No one arrested for marijuana in Denton in 2021 is languishing in jail on just that charge.

“Any of the steps proposed so far to the City Council can only worsen and further confuse the situation,” he said. “The change these folks are looking for needs to come from Austin, not City Hall.”

He can sympathize with some of its goals. But he said, “There is no easy way for a city in Texas to ‘decriminalize’ marijuana.”

Davis also said he has public safety concerns. He said decriminalizing weed in Denton or other cities (opposed to legalizing the stuff statewide) could make it easier for the illicit drug trade to flourish in those smaller jurisdictions.

“How many people are going to be arrested, incarcerated and have their lives upended between now and when the state finally gets its act together?" – Tristan Seikel, Decriminalize Denton

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“While we can debate the public health issues around marijuana itself, the illicit marijuana trade is extremely dangerous and will stay that way until the entire supply chain is legalized,” he said. “So if Denton very publicly announces that we're ‘420 Friendly’ more illicit trade is obviously going to migrate here where penalties are perceived to be lower, and the risk of violence is going to come with it.”

Davis said the Decriminalize Denton proposal asks the city to do things it can’t really do, like limiting the police department’s enforcement powers and setting disciplinary actions, both of which are regulated at the state level.

“This whole conversation is an attempt to address a state level issue with a local band aid,” he said.

But that’s the point, Seikel said.

“Fundamentally, that’s why we started this campaign, out of a frustration with the lack of action on the state’s leadership in regards to reforming cannabis policy,” he said. “How many people are going to be arrested, incarcerated and have their lives upended between now and when the state finally gets its act together? … We’re forced to take this to the municipal level because if we don’t it’s an indefinite timeline for when we’re going to get that kind of reform.”

Seikel also said there isn't any evidence to show that legalization or decriminalization leads to more violent crime. Other cities have also taken steps to decriminalize cannabis.

In 2020, the Austin City Council and police department agreed to stop charging people for misdemeanor weed possession. But a group called Ground Game Texas has been working to stop enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses entirely and ban "no-knock" warrants in the city with the Austin Freedom Act. At the beginning of December, Ground Game Texas submitted a petition with over 30,000 signatures to the city clerk asking that the Austin Freedom Act be placed on the May 7 uniform election ballot.

On Monday, Ground Game Texas announced that the city clerk certified the petition, allowing the Austin Freedom Act to be added to the ballot.

Seikel thinks that if enough municipalities push cannabis reform forward, it will force the state to do the same.

If the council doesn’t push the ordinance forward for a final vote, it could be taken up again at another work session. If all else fails at City Hall, Seikel said his group would work to get the issue put on the ballot for voters to decide. It would take longer, but he’s confident they would get the votes they need.
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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