AUSTIN (KXAN) — Ahead of Thursday’s vote on Item 59 on the Austin City Council agenda, which would ‘deprioritize’ low-level marijuana possession, council members supporting the item held a press conference Tuesday.
“I think this resolution shows how we can become a city that is actually prioritizing other things in our community, rather than potentially derailing people’s lives over something that, frankly, the state of Texas, I hope, is on the path to eventually legalizing,” Council member Greg Casar said.
Casar, along with council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Jimmy Flanagan, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and other community advocates, called for full support of the item at City Hall.
The aforementioned council members are sponsors of the item.
The item cites House Bill 1359, the statewide legalization of hemp, as a main component for the proposed change.
“The state has created a problem that it expects local governments to fix, but it’s also tied our hands, leaving us with fewer ways to do that,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said.
State of Texas prosecutors, including those in Travis County, said they have stopped prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana charges, unless they had lab reports on THC levels.
THC is what distinguishes marijuana from legal hemp.
“That means that continuing to seek the city of Austin’s limited resources into fighting those low level cases just doesn’t make any sense,” Garza said.
District 6 Council member Jimmy Flannigan called their proposal the “fiscally conservative” solution.
He said they are looking at “the resources that we are expending in our police department to enforce a law that is no longer enforceable.”
What would this mean for prosecutors?
Many of these “low-level” cases are misdemeanors, which would be prosecuted by the Travis County Attorney.
Any felony offenses, however, would land on Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s desk.
Moore said since the Texas law changed last summer, they have dismissed all marijuana and THC cases, except for three. The two individuals involved in those three cases are charged with first degree felony THC cases.
“The law enforcement agency that brought us those cases was willing to pay an outside agency to get those tested because of the degree of the felony,” Moore explained.
She said she is waiting to comment on what impact the council resolution will have on her caseload until Thursday’s vote.
We reached out to the County Attorney’s office for a comment. We will update this article if we hear back.
What is a “low-level” case?
There were several questions at the news conference concerning what qualifies as a “low-level” case.
Emily Gerrick with the Texas Fair Defense Project said the resolution provides for THC testing in felony level trafficking offenses: cases where the responding officer determines there is an “intent to distribute or sell.”
“The reason that it’s not just felony versus misdemeanor is because you can very easily have ‘personal use’ amounts of a marijuana substance, because it’s done it’s done by weight,” she said, referring to the current law.
Gerrick used the example of a “pot brownie.”
“It’s going to be the entire weight of the brownie, and not the weight of the substance that’s in it.”
Basically, there are cases in which there is a felony quantity of marijuana, but law enforcement determines there is no intent to sell, affecting the degree of the crime.
Council member Casar said they do not want to be dedicating resources to cases where it is a “personal amount of marijuana,” without the intent to sell or distribute.