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Austinites get to vote on weed and no-knock warrants this election. Here's what you need to know.

A row of colorful pipes
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Austin residents will vote on whether to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in the May 7 election.

Lee esta historia en español.

Voters in Austin are being asked to weigh in on marijuana and police tactics after a left-leaning organization got a petition-driven initiative on the May 7 ballot.

Ground Game Texas, which is proposing similar ballot items throughout the state, is hoping voters will back decriminalizing small amounts of weed — meaning less than 4 oz. — and banning so-called "no-knock" warrants by police.

Early voting starts Monday. Want to know what you’re voting on? Sit back and read on.

What will you see on your ballot?

Even though there are two questions, you get only one vote; the marijuana and the warrant items are combined in Proposition A. So, you’re either for decriminalizing weed and banning no-knock warrants or you’re against both.

Here’s how the proposition is phrased:

Shall an initiative ordinance be approved to (1) eliminate enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses and (2) ban the use of “no knock” warrants by Austin police?

But wait. Isn’t marijuana, in small amounts, already decriminalized in Austin?

Effectively, yes. But the journey to decriminalized (but not legal) weed is meandering.

In 2019, Texas lawmakers legalized hemp. In doing so, they had to differentiate the substance from weed; the state ended up defining marijuana as something containing more than .3% of THC, the ingredient that makes someone feel high.

Because of the new legal standard, prosecutors across the state said they could not pursue low-level marijuana charges without being able to test the level of THC in a substance. Many said they didn’t have proper testing equipment and couldn’t afford to buy it. In Travis County, prosecutors ended up dropping many misdemeanor marijuana cases.

The Austin City Council was in favor of dismissing these cases and wanted to further enshrine the practice. They voted to restrict the city from spending money on marijuana testing and to ask the police chief to stop citing people for having small amounts of the stuff.

Some elected officials also pointed out that Black people made up a much larger portion of people arrested for marijuana possession than their share of the city’s population. But ultimately, their reasoning was this: Why should people be ticketed only to have their cases dismissed?

Then-Police Chief Brian Manley disagreed. He said he would continue following state law, which (still) explicitly outlaws the use of marijuana. Yet six months later, Manley changed his mind. In announcing that Austin police would stop citing people for small amounts of weed, he further solidified marijuana as a decriminalized substance in Austin.

So, why are we voting on weed?

Ground Game Texas, the group behind Proposition A, says it wants to keep weed out of the hands of politicians.

Wait, what?

Mike Siegel, the political director of Ground Game Texas, said the group doesn’t want to leave Austin’s policy on marijuana up to a new police chief.

“It would be to formally add it to the city code so that subsequently to this, once it gets adopted, it won’t be up to the city manager or the police chief to change that policy on a whim,” Siegel said at a news conference earlier this year.

Since the rule to not cite people for low-level marijuana possession is part of the police manual, it can be (easily) changed.

OK. I get the weed thing now. What about warrants?

Police use of "no-knock" warrants was thrust into the national conversation when Breonna Taylor, a Black woman living in Louisville, Ky., was killed by police executing a no-knock warrant in 2020. Officers with these warrants can enter a residence without any warning.

Austin police are currently permitted to use this type of warrant – but with limitations. Per the police manual, they need to be signed off on by both a commander and a judge, and can be used only when an officer fears for their safety. Police used three no-knock warrants last year, according to APD.

But Ground Game Texas wants to ban them outright.

“We know no-knock warrants are an extremely dangerous police tactic,” Siegal said. “We want to protect public safety by taking those off the table.”

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin police union, said that while the department’s use of no-knock warrants is rare, it’s an important option to have. (KUT reached out to Police Chief Joseph Chacon for comment, but did not hear back by deadline.)

“It is vital to have access to it,” Casaday told KUT. “It’s for very violent and specific situations.”

Got it. So, when and where can I vote?

Early voting starts Monday and goes through May 3. Election Day is May 7. You can find early voting and Election Day poll locations here.

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