Last week, the city council in Austin, Texas — almost certainly the most progressive city in a slowly changing, but still undeniably conservative state — voted unanimously in favor of hardcore conservative values: no more would the city pay for lab tests necessary to differentiate illegal cannabis from state-legal hemp. Small government, personal responsibility, and fiscal restraint. And, consistent with these mores, de-facto marijuana decriminalization, and in Texas!
Elation lasted just about 24 hours. The following day, Brian Manley, Austin’s chief of police, called a press conference. Big government and the nanny state would continue unabated, damn the elected officials, the police chief said. Cannabis, Manley said, “is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” as the Texas Tribune reported.
After all, said the chief, “a city council does not have the authority to tell a police department not to enforce a state law.”
The result, as both Reason and the Tribune reported, is an old-fashioned standoff, but one in which the lawman lacks both the firepower and the public support to enforce his will.
Broadly speaking, what’s happening in Texas is happening elsewhere in the United States, as law-enforcement agencies spoiled by years of cannabis prohibition are finding their lives and work hopelessly complicated by hemp.
The 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump, legalized hemp production, defining “hemp” as the cannabis sativa plant with 0.3% or less of THC. (Pedants will argue that it always was, but pedants will also be forced to admit that the shift in policy injected heretofore unseen clarity.)
Hemp legalization helped supercharge the already fast-moving CBD boom, but it also meant that in order to continue arrests for low-level marijuana possession, police needed to do more work than declaring a green leafy substance to be marijuana based solely on smell and look. Specifically, cops needed to submit whatever cannabis sativa they encountered for costly and time-consuming lab tests to determine how much THC the joint in question contained and whether it was cannabis, or hemp — a process that was such a pain that, many police complained, the hemp law basically amounted to de-facto decriminalization of weed.
According to Margaret Moore, the local prosecutor, submitting samples of seized weed to the state testing lab involved a turnaround time of up to a year, more time than anyone seemed willing to commit to low-level possession busts. With state drug laws unchanged, prosecutors asked for more cash. In the meantime, prosecutors also dropped 32 possession cases after defense attorneys pointed out that the weed involved wasn’t tested.
Rather than pay for costly new lab equipment or for weed to be tested in private labs, the Austin City Council voted unanimously that no city money could be spent on testing cannabis in misdemeanor-level cases — meaning that though state drug laws were unchanged, anyone busted with 4 ounces or less couldn’t be prosecuted because Austin cops wouldn’t be able to prove they had weed. Hundreds more pending cases will be dropped as a result, Councilmember Gregorio Casar, sponsor of the vote, told Reason.
But even if they won’t appear in court, anyone in Austin caught with pot can be ticketed and inconvenienced — and have their weed taken away — and filing pointless paperwork appears to be what police intend to do. As per the Tribune, Chief Manley has instructed police to continue issuing tickets and/or making arrests.
The disagreement here might sound like some kind of “Texas standoff,” but in this instance, the lawmakers hold the purse strings and thus the upper hand. Casar told the paper that, even if Manley’s officers do continue making busts, any tickets issued will be “meaningless pieces of paper,” and any arrests, while time-consuming and certainly not fun, will end with a “quick release with no charges.”
Under the resolution, Austin’s city manager must present a progress report to lawmakers by May 1. If Manley is serious, his officers may be spending a lot of time on fruitless weed searches. If he’s not, cannabis is indeed effectively decriminalized. Either way, it seems like Austin is on its way to becoming the weed-friendliest locale in Texas. Which isn’t saying much, but it’s all thanks to the hemp bill.
TELL US, is your city weed-friendly?