Will Denton Decriminalize Misdemeanor Amounts of Pot?

After hemp was legalized federally and in Texas, some prosecutors stopped charging for weed possession all together.
After hemp was legalized federally and in Texas, some prosecutors stopped charging for weed possession all together. Jacob Vaughn
The Denton City Council is gearing up to consider an ordinance that would eliminate all arrests and citations for possession of misdemeanor amounts of cannabis.

On Tuesday, council member Deb Armintor plans to deliver a two-minute pitch to her colleagues asking them to vote in favor of the ordinance, dubbed the Denton Responsible Reformation of Cannabis Enforcement Act of 2021.

Denton police would only be able to issue citations or arrests for misdemeanor amounts of weed when it's part of a broader felony narcotics case that's considered high priority, or whenever a violent felony is also involved.

In every other case (unless other charges are involved) the cop can only seize the weed and release the individual.

If the ordinance passes, Denton will become the latest North Texas community to change the way marijuana is policed. In April, Plano and Dallas similarly decided to issue citations rather than make arrests for possession of small quantities.

In Denton, the ordinance would do away with class C misdemeanor citations for possession of drug residue or drug paraphernalia. Also, city funds or personnel can’t be used to “request, conduct, or obtain THC testing of any cannabis-related substance” to determine if it exceeds the legal limit of THC. Testing would only be allowed in special circumstances, like when dealing with a violent felony.

Denton cops could be disciplined if they violate the ordinance.

In a post on Twitter earlier this month, Armintor said: "Proud to sponsor this law from Decriminalize Denton. It's my second attempt at pot reform on Council and just a foot in the door on real marijuana justice, as it only [applies] to misdemeanors, paraphernalia and THC testing. No more excuses, Denton! Let's do this now."

The main group behind the ordinance is Decriminalize Denton, a local cannabis advocacy organization. Tristan Seikel, the group’s organizer and co-founder, said these efforts started in 2018, around the same time the U.S. Farm Bill was passed.

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill legalized hemp that contains less than 0.3% of delta-9 THC, the primary psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis plants. Seikel was studying at the University of North Texas at the time and helped form UNT Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

"No more excuses, Denton! Let's do this now." – Deb Armintor, Denton City Council member

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“When we founded that chapter back in August of 2018, we did so with a mission of policy change,” Seikel said. They wanted to change policy on campus and in the city “to deal with the many consequences that have stemmed from the war on drugs and also the war on cannabis.”

They were piggybacking off of the university's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) chapter, which eventually fizzled away. Out of UNT Students for Sensible Drug Policy, they created Decriminalize Denton to influence policy change on the city level.

In 2019, Gov. Gregg Abbott signed House Bill 1325, legalizing the cultivation, possession and sale of industrial hemp that contains less than 0.3% delta-9 THC.

This threw local law enforcement into a quagmire. Now, if they wanted to arrest someone for possession of marijuana, they’d have to pay for a test that would prove it was above the legal limit of delta-9 THC.

Because of this, some police departments decided to start cite and release programs or to stop charging for personal use amounts of cannabis all together. In Denton, for example, you can be caught with an ounce of weed, but you’ll only walk away without your bud and with a class C misdemeanor ticket for drug paraphernalia.

“With consideration for this law and the cost of testing, the Denton Police Department changed its approach regarding misdemeanor marijuana violations to issuing citations rather than effecting arrests,” the Denton Police Department told WFAA. “The Department is committed to focusing on violent crimes and keeping the community safe.”

The same year hemp was legalized in Texas, Armintor pitched a moratorium on arrests and citations for misdemeanor amounts of pot, similar to what’s proposed in the ordinance being taken up Tuesday. This failed to gain support from the rest of the council. Denton police also had reservations about such a change, saying it might make it harder for law enforcement to tackle violent crime.

The ordinance takes that concern into account, but Seikel said there’s no data to suggest a correlation between violent crime and misdemeanor amounts of cannabis.

In May, three new City Council members were elected. They signed a letter in support of halting these marijuana citations and arrests. The letter included data from the Denton Police Department that showed racial disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws in the city. With Armintor and the three newcomers, Decriminalize Denton had a majority of the council on its side.

While the ordinance would be a big step for the city, Seikel said, it doesn’t include concentrates. Seikel said they originally wanted to halt charges for THC concentrates, but that’s a harder sell because any amount is an automatic state jail felony.

“There is a larger battle there, and it’s harder for municipalities to override state drug felony laws, unfortunately,” he said.

However, the ban on testing laid out in the ordinance could get some off the hook if they’re caught with a concentrate. Still, Seikel said if the ordinance is adopted, the group hopes to take on that larger fight for THC concentrates in the city.
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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