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Residents in one of Texas’ most populous cities are working to decriminalize marijuana

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LUBBOCK — Giselle Ramirez left work on a recent Tuesday afternoon and went straight to the north side of town. For more than three hours in 97 degree heat, she asked grocery shoppers to help her decriminalize marijuana.

Ramirez is volunteering for Lubbock Compact, a local advocacy group working on the cause. The group picked that grocery store location specifically — they say most marijuana arrests are in north and east Lubbock, where the residents are mostly Black and Hispanic.

"I’m doing this to help my community stay out of jail for marijuana,” Ramirez said. “I don’t believe anyone should go to jail for mota, our city has bigger problems.”

The campaign to decriminalize recreational marijuana in Lubbock is the latest in a long struggle for cannabis supporters in the Lone Star State, which, unlike neighboring states, has long resisted legalizing the drug. If the suggested change becomes local law, Lubbock would be the largest Texas city to decriminalize the drug through the petition process.

Without statewide legalization for recreational use, some Texans have sought to at least decriminalize it. Residents in Denton, Killeen, Elgin, San Marcos and Harker Heights all approved ballot measures banning arrests and citations for carrying less than four ounces of marijuana in most instances. However, the local city councils have declined to put the voter-approved rules in place. And Bell County, which includes Killeen, has sued to block the change from going into effect.

Lubbock residents are familiar with the process of changing city rules by ballot initiatives. In 2021, Lubbockites overwhelmingly approved a so-called sanctuary city policy that sought to outlaw abortion in the city limits. It’s unclear whether those voters would support the marijuana decriminalization policy.

Marijuana has been a point of contention in Texas. Lawmakers have gone as far as legalizing medical marijuana but have drawn the line when it comes to recreational use or lowering penalties for possession.

There have been efforts to change state law. Some bills, such as House Bill 218, a legislative push by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, to reduce the penalty for possessing one ounce of marijuana and allow for convictions to be expunged in certain cases, was approved by the House. But the bill later died in the Senate.

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Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has been a vocal supporter of lowering penalties for marijuana possession, arguing that the state's jails are already overcrowded.

At a campaign event last year, Abbott said he believes “prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others, and small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”

Nathan Lewis gets signatures on a petition to decriminalize marijuana from Andrew Alcala, center, and Yvette Castillo, right, at the South Plains Fair Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, in Lubbock. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

Republican voters appear split on the issue — a recent University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll shows only 33% support “less strict” laws, while 32% think the laws should be “more strict.” Overall, 51% of Texans in the same poll say the state’s marijuana laws should be less strict. The February poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8%.

In West Texas, Lubbock Compact started the Freedom Act Lubbock petition in August and has until Oct. 18 to get 4,800 signatures by registered voters, with a goal of 7,500 in case some signatures are ineligible. With just under three weeks to go, the group is nearly there with an estimated 6,000 signatures.

If the petition is successful, the city council must vote to accept the group’s proposal to decriminalize marijuana or reject it. If the council rejects the change — which Lubbock Compact leaders think is likely — the petition organizers can put it on the 2024 ballot for voters to decide.

City officials declined to comment for this story.

Adam Hernandez, communications chair for Lubbock Compact, said decriminalizing marijuana would be a step forward for the city of more than 260,000 people. The group, along with Ground Game Texas, a nonprofit organization that focuses on mobilizing voters, collected data showing disparities in how Lubbock police enforce marijuana-related crimes.

According to the report, Black residents account for 8% of Lubbock residents and Latinos make up 37% of the population. However, 29% of marijuana arrests are Black residents and 49% are Latinos.

Data also shows that about 52% of all marijuana arrests since 2018 involve people 25 years old or younger.

The report calls on the city to address the disparities.

A shirt promotes the decriminalization of marijuana in Lubbock at the South Plains Fair Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, in Lubbock. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

“These findings should require Lubbock to reevaluate its marijuana enforcement priorities and implement a more common sense, equitable and just enforcement for all residents,” the report said.

Even though young people of color are the ones being arrested in most cases, Hernandez suggested many people in Lubbock use marijuana.

“Our senior populations use it for chronic pain, veterans use it for post-traumatic stress, people who have cancer use it as they go through chemo,” Hernandez said. “There’s all sorts of uses for it. If people could educate themselves on that, they may find they have friends and family who may be using it for something.”

If the ordinance wins approval, it should lead to updated training for law enforcement, but it would not change how police deal with juveniles who are caught with marijuana, Hernandez said.

The effort in Lubbock to change city policy comes as state lawmakers have sought to stop cities from enacting policies they say go beyond state law. In Texas, cities with more than 5,000 people long have had the power to write their own policies. The new state law puts restrictions on some policy areas.

Charelle Lett, a legal expert with the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decriminalization policy should stand if adopted.

“As long as the ordinance isn’t prohibited by state or federal law, which to my knowledge, there isn’t a prohibition on decriminalizing marijuana in Texas so far,” Lett explained, “then they may have a good chance of getting this to pass.”

Lett echoed Hernandez’s sentiment, saying decriminalizing would have a big impact on Black and Latino communities that feel over-policed, and for the people being heard by city leaders.

“A lot of the time, people in high places forget to listen to the community they are so-called serving,” Lett said. “Nobody knows what a community needs better than the community itself.”

Since the petition started, Lubbock Compact and their volunteers have registered more than 150 new voters. And residents in nearby cities have expressed interest in replicating the effort for their towns.

“We’ve heard from people in Wolfforth, Levelland, Slaton and many more who want to see if they can do this too,” Ramirez said. “The decriminalizing movement is only going to continue to grow until we get marijuana legalized, which is what the majority of Texans want.”


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