Voting on Weed: In November, Cannabis Decriminalization Will Be on the Ballot in Denton

Though they didn't vote to change the proposed ordinance, some Denton City Council members were concerned that it contradicted state and federal law.
Though they didn't vote to change the proposed ordinance, some Denton City Council members were concerned that it contradicted state and federal law. iStock/oneinchpunch
After months of work by supporters, an ordinance that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis will be up to Denton voters when they head to the polls for the November city election.

Two groups, Ground Game Texas and Decriminalize Denton, gathered nearly 3,000 signatures on a petition in support of the move in May. But before the ordinance could get on the ballot, the City Council had to approve it, which it did unanimously Tuesday. Had the City Council chosen not to adopt the ballot initiative, a special election on the proposed changes would have been required.

If approved by voters in November, the ordinance would keep Denton cops from citing or arresting for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The only exceptions would be for broader, high-priority narcotics cases and when a felony is involved. Officers would also be allowed to order THC tests only if a violent felony is involved. Class C misdemeanor citations for possession of drug residue or drug paraphernalia would also be barred under the ordinance.

Several other cities across the state are also putting cannabis decriminalization to a vote, one of the biggest being Austin.

Over the last few years, advocates have tried to get similar measures approved by the Denton City Council, but they never got the necessary votes. Although they think they’ll have better luck now that it’s in voters' hands, they say there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Tristan Seikel, organizer and co-founder of Decriminalize Denton, said the group believes a ballot initiative would be more protected than an ordinance passed by the council. That, along with the lack of success with similar efforts in the past, persuaded them to move forward with a ballot initiative.

"I absolutely support it going to the citizens. I absolutely think it won’t pass.” – Denton City Mayor Gerard Hudspeth

tweet this
"Our concern was that if council adopted this right away, they could change this ordinance at any point in the near future," Seikel said. "Whereas, if a majority of voters pass the ordinance, it would then be much more politically difficult for council to try to change or get rid of the ordinance, as that would involve circumventing the will of the people."

Seikel added, "Our community has given Denton City Council ample opportunities over the past several years to make cannabis reform a reality but they have failed to do so, which is exactly why we want Denton voters to finally decide their city’s fate on this issue."

Daryoush Austin Zamhariri, creator and chief editor of the Texas Cannabis Collective, a Fort Worth-based cannabis news site, is one who has been advocating for the ballot initiative. Zamhariri said now that the initiative is set to go on the ballot, advocates need to start educating Denton residents about it and making sure they are registered to vote. “I fear an uphill battle as Mayor [Gerard] Hudspeth personally stated he thinks the measure will fail and reiterated the council stance that it contradicts state and federal law,” he said.

Some council members had different issues with the ordinance, saying they wouldn’t vote for it as it was written, but they ultimately supported letting the voters decide. There were some outliers among the council during the discussion, though.

City Council member Jesse Davis said he was surprised that his colleagues were ready to send it to the ballot. Denton also needs a new police chief. Some said that in the process of looking for a new chief, candidates should be asked for their thoughts on the ordinance. Davis said it wasn’t a fair question.

“You’re proposing to ask them a question that our city attorney has been very clear on, that our city manager has been very clear on, that most law enforcement and attorneys that advise law enforcement have been very clear on,” Davis said. “Even if you nail down the City of Austin folks, they’ll tell you they are out over their skis on this particular issue. They just haven’t been sued yet. A police officer will tell you they are bound to uphold the law.”

In Texas, that includes laws restricting the possession and use of marijuana. That’s why Mayor  Hudspeth thinks the ordinance is a bad idea. “It’s going to cause confusion, and that’s my concern,” he said. Either way, he doesn’t think it will be successful.

“I want to be abundantly clear. I absolutely support it going to the citizens,” he said. “I absolutely think it won’t pass.” 
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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