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Travis County judge dismisses Paxton's lawsuit over Austin ordinance decriminalizing pot

Julia Reihs
/
KUT News
Austin voters approved a proposition in May 2022 that decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana.

A Travis County judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against Austin over its 2022 voter-approved ordinance decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the suit in January, alleging Austin was violating state law and promoting "the use of illicit drugs that harm our communities." He filed similar suits against San Marcos, Killeen, Denton and Elgin, which also decriminalized pot.

Judge Jan Soifer on Tuesday sided with the city, which argued that not only was there no evidence the ordinance was harmful to the public, but also that it did not violate state law.

"The city ordinance does not order police officers to stop enforcing drug laws," the city's lawyers argued, according to court documents. "Rather, it halts arrests and citations related to one specific type of charge, while prioritizing violent felonies and felony narcotics cases, and while still allowing enforcement of marijuana seizure laws."

Austin voters approved a proposition in May 2022 to allow the possession of 4 ounces or less of marijuana. Police already weren't arresting people for low-level possession, in part because it was difficult to differentiate marijuana from hemp, which was legalized in 2019.

Austin Police Department employees and other city officials testified in court that police resources are better devoted to the investigation of violent crimes and more serious drug offenses, such as fentanyl trafficking, especially as Austin continues to struggle with staffing shortages.

"[Voters] sent a clear message that law enforcement should prioritize resources to focus on critical public safety issues, rather than low-level marijuana possession," city officials told KUT in a written statement Wednesday. "At its core, the ordinance does exactly that, without removing reasonable discretion from police officers to enforce the law."

Mike Sigel, political director for Ground Game Texas, said hopefully the ruling sends a powerful message. The nonprofit is spearheading efforts to decriminalize pot in the state.

"Marijuana reform accomplishes multiple objectives at once," he said. "We have historic racism in our policing especially in terms of marijuana enforcement and we are addressing that by preventing disproportionate enforcement against Black and latino communities. We are also allowing cities to reallocate local dollars to higher priority needs."

He said the issue also gives people a reason to vote.

Paxton is likely to appeal.

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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