HAYS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A group working to decriminalize marijuana in San Marcos is using 4/20, a day recognized nationwide as one that celebrates pot, to garner enough signatures to put decriminalization before voters in November, similar to what’s being voted on in Austin this May.

Mano Amiga is one of the groups behind a petition in San Marcos to keep people from being charged for having recreational amounts of pot in the city. Should the group get the necessary signatures, more than 4,000, that effort could be put before voters in the November election.

“Aside from just that one night in jail, or that one day in court, it can lead to you losing your financial aid for students, international students being barred from the country altogether, your employer can find it, potential landlords, and it can just affect your life and really disrupt your life,” said Sam Benavides, communications director with Mano Amiga. The group has collected roughly two-thirds of the signatures needed, she said.

Mano Amiga will be at 4/20 events Wednesday such as Studio San Martian’s ‘Puff in the Park‘ event and Lazydaze coffeeshop in an attempt to hit its signature goal. The deadline is in six weeks.

“The celebration comes against the harsh reality that so many people’s lives have been irrevocably changed for the worst, because our government chooses to cage people for cannabis,” said Eric Martinez, policy director for Mano Amiga.

One of the people who plans to be at some of those events, supporting the effort, is councilmember Maxfield Baker, who said even though Mano Amiga has not reached out for city council’s help, he thinks small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized and would even continue to pursue it should Mano Amiga not get enough signatures. Baker is on the criminal justice reform committee.

“I think the city needs to be more proactive instead of just waiting until the day that the election happens and then starting to work on it. It’s our duty to kind of understand what our constituents are asking for,” Baker said. “When we look at the sort of circles or spheres of overlapping intersectionality as it relates to the benefits of decriminalizing in our community, I think that they’re far reaching beyond just not putting people in jail.”

Baker said he met with the District Attorney’s Office Wednesday to ask about how city council could move forward with that process, regardless of what Mano Amiga is doing. He also said he intends to meet with law enforcement to field their concerns.

“We have a lot of people in town that clearly want it, but getting a firm grasp of what the opposition might be levying against them,” he said was a priority for him.

In a meeting earlier this year where city council members met to talk about the city’s vision, decriminalization of marijuana was discussed. Baker said that’s the only formal discussion council has had about this issue this year.

“I can give two whatever about marijuana one way or another, but I don’t want to go against what is the current state law,” Councilmember Shane Scott said in January. “I don’t want to say that’s something we’re going to put together as a council. I can’t support that at all.”

The Hays County Sheriff’s Office said it’s too early for them to comment on possible decriminalization. KXAN also reached out to the San Marcos Police Association, the District Attorney’s Office, other members of the San Marcos City Council and the mayor’s office.

The ‘cite and release’ model

San Marcos already operates under a “cite and release” model.

Passed in 2020, the ordinance orders police officers to issue more tickets and make fewer arrests for certain low-level offenses, including marijuana possession of less than four ounces. The way that ordinance was originally written, police are still allowed to use their discretion to arrest someone if they find it necessary — for example, they think the person could be a danger to themselves or the public.

“Although they aren’t immediately arrested and detained, and they have two weeks to plan for their affairs, they do eventually enter the legal system. And so this will help to just keep people out of the legal system altogether. Because even if you don’t spend a night in jail, but you just have that charge on your record, it can still have serious implications on your life,” Benavides said.

Possession of marijuana charges in the Hays County jail

While San Marcos police use the “cite and release” model, that’s not the case for other parts of Hays County and a large number of people in the jail are charged with possession of marijuana.

Of the people in the Hays County jail whose most severe charge was a misdemeanor, the number of people with possession of marijuana charges is topped only by charges for driving while intoxicated, assault and public intoxication, according to the jail dashboard.

Martinez said in a news conference 51 people were booked into the Hays County jail between October 2020 and October 2021 by the San Marcos Police Department with possession of marijuana being their most serious charge, citing the dashboard.

“We would love to explore avenues to decriminalize weed at the county level — that would really have an impact on our jail population,” Benavides said. “But this would just be for San Marcos in the meantime.”

Efforts to fight jail overcrowding in Hays County

As Hays County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in Texas, jail overcrowding is something the county said it’s struggling with. It’s why voters opted to put money toward an expansion of the jail in 2016.

Still, Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell said that expansion won’t be enough. He said roughly 600 beds will be available once that expansion is complete. There are roughly 650 inmates in Hays County’s custody right now, he said, which leaves other counties holding those inmates.

The move to decriminalize marijuana is running parallel to a push by Mano Amiga and some Hays County commissioners to create a public defenders office, something the county doesn’t currently have, in another effort to free up space in the jail and help people navigate the criminal justice system.

“What we’re trying to do is to put another piece of this puzzle together, so that we can solve some of these problems,” Shell, who was largely behind the proposal to fund the public defender’s office, said.

In August, Hays County commissioners unanimously voted to earmark $5 million in American Rescue Plan funding for the creation of the public defenders office. Commissioners will consider two teams of applicants during their April 26 meeting.