Police officers in Austin, Texas will no longer arrest or issue citations to those suspected of possessing small amounts of marijuana, according to an Austin Police Department memorandum released on Thursday. The policy change comes five months after the Austin City Council voted to end enforcement of low-level cannabis possession laws and more than a year after Texas legalized hemp agriculture in the state.
“APD will no longer cite or arrest individuals with sufficient identification for Class A or Class B misdemeanor ‘possession of marijuana’ offenses, unless there is an immediate threat to a person’s safety or doing so as part of the investigation of a high priority, felony-level narcotics case or the investigation of a violent felony,” Austin Police Chief Brian Manley wrote in the memo to Austin’s mayor and city council.
In June 2019, the Texas legislature legalized hemp production in the state, defining the crop as cannabis with less than 0.3% THC by dry weight. That led many local prosecutors throughout the state to announce that they would no longer file charges for minor pot possession cases, explaining that proving seized cannabis was marijuana and not hemp required expensive, and in many cases unavailable, lab testing.
Police Originally Balked At City Council Resolution
Then in January of this year, the Austin City Council passed a resolution calling on the city’s police department to stop ticketing or arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The resolution also required that city funds and personnel be utilized for THC testing only in cases involving felony charges. Manley initially resisted the move, saying that the resolution would not change how police officers in Austin enforced state statutes.
“[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” he said during a news conference at the time.
In the change of policy released on Thursday, however, Manley said that Austin police would comply with the council resolution and follow the lead of other law enforcement agencies. Under the new guidelines, officers who suspect that a person possesses a misdemeanor amount of marijuana will be instructed to seize the substance and file a report without making an arrest or issuing a citation.
“After reviewing the current protocols for handling marijuana cases at all of the relevant County and District Courts and Attorney Offices and/or conferring with representatives from those respective entities, APD has revised our marijuana-enforcement [policies] to comply with Council’s resolution and align with present practices within the local judicial system,” Manley wrote in the memo.
Council Member Applauds Decision
City Council Member Greg Casar lauded the change, noting that Blacks in Austin are more likely to be cited for marijuana possession than the city’s white residents.
“When people organize for racial justice, they can make real change,” Casar wrote in a statement. “Although the Police Chief should have made this change the day after City Council passed my resolution directing this back in January, it finally happened today because of continued community advocacy.”
To enact the mandatory change in enforcement policy, the police department’s command staff met to discuss the revisions, and officers will be issued a training bulletin to review and acknowledge the new guidelines.