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Proposition B puts marijuana reform on the ballot for Denton voters

Proposition B takes center stage in November for Denton residents to determine if police should officially ignore low-level marijuana possession, directed by a new city ordinance that seeks to bring common-sense cannabis reform to Denton.
Maria Crane
Proposition B takes center stage in November for Denton residents to determine if police should officially ignore low-level marijuana possession, directed by a new city ordinance that seeks to bring common-sense cannabis reform to Denton.

Proposition B takes center stage in November for Denton residents to determine if police should officially ignore instances of low-level marijuana possession, directed by a new city ordinance that seeks to bring common-sense cannabis reform to Denton.

Decriminalize Denton board member Nick Stevens said it is an issue that crosses the political divide. Two weeks ago, the group was at Robson Ranch, said Stevens, educating residents about what his organization was doing with the Nov. 8 ballot initiative. He said they handed out 75 Prop. B support signs.

“Each of them had a unique story,” Stevens said. “They had back pain and had a granddaughter give them marijuana or had a grandson who went to jail for marijuana.”

Common-sense cannabis reform has been pursued over the past decade in a majority of states. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt recently announced a special election for March 7, 2023, to decide on the use of recreational marijuana. His announcement comes shortly after President Joe Biden signaled his willingness to embrace cannabis reform by taking three steps:

  1. Pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana.
  2. Urging all governors to do the same with regard to state offenses.
  3. Asking the secretary of health and human services and the attorney general to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.

“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in his Oct. 6 announcement. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities.”

In 2015, Texas took baby steps when state legislators passed the Compassionate Care Use Act, offering low-potency medicinal cannabis to patients with specific medical issues. They expanded it in 2019 and 2021 to include other medical issues such as those with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gov. Greg Abbott, however, refuses to allow it to become an initiative for Texas voters to determine, and has been reluctant to forgive state level offenses, pointing out in an Oct. 6 statement shared on Twitter that he could pardon only people who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for a pardon.

A local nonprofit organization, Decriminalize Denton formed, in part, due to a low-level marijuana offense and obtained more than 3,000 signatures, exceeding the 1,700 needed, on a petition to get the cannabis reform ordinance on the November ballot. Denton City Manager Sara Hensley and other council members, however, have voiced reluctance to imposing on police duties.

“Sara is free to believe what she believes,” Stevens said. “But I encourage her to read our city charter, which very clearly outlines directives for police.”

Proposition B seeks to establish directives for police by way of an ordinance instead of a resolution, a symbolic gesture that is more of a recommendation than a rule. According to Decriminalize Denton’s website, the proposition, if passed, would:

  • Eliminate all citations and arrests for possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana (cannabis), except in some limited circumstances.
  • Prevent Denton police from giving citations for drug paraphernalia in lieu of a possession of marijuana charge.
  • Prohibit Denton police from using the odor of marijuana or hemp as probable cause for search or seizure.
  • Save the city valuable law enforcement resources and municipal court resources, including labor and filing costs. This initiative would also ban costly THC testing.

On Oct. 13, newly inducted Denton Police Chief Doug Shoemaker told the Denton Record-Chronicle that the ordinance would cause some problems for police. Shoemaker hails from law enforcement agencies in Missouri and Colorado, where marijuana is available medicinally and recreationally. He spent about five years as Grand Junction, Colorado, police chief before accepting the position in Denton earlier this month.

Missouri voters will be voting on marijuana decriminalization in November.

“The big challenge and very realistic challenge is some ramifications of that ordinance, particularly in terms of investigation — if you detect the scent of marijuana, being able to investigate further,” Shoemaker said. “There are some pretty strong restrictions on that that might be very problematic.

“And quite frankly, it conflicts with state law, which is going to be very problematic, too.”

State law does allow some leeway in the way law enforcement handles misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. They can issue citations for low-level marijuana offenses instead of taking people to jail. The previous Denton police chief, Frank Dixon, had directed police to issue citations for low-level offenses instead of arrests and told the City Council in late July that data shows they’d been able to cut in-custody jail stays by 85%.

The in-custody drop comes at a time when arrests for marijuana were at an all-time high nationwide. Pew Research Center found that 4 in 10 U.S. drug arrests in 2018 were mostly marijuana possession offenses, according to a Jan. 22, 2020, report. Additionally, the ACLU’s most recent analysis revealed that “marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States” with Black people 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white people.

But Dixon’s directive wasn’t a city policy, meaning Shoemaker could direct his officers to take a different stance on low-level marijuana offenses.

Dixon, in the July meeting, discussed a similar concern that Shoemaker mentioned to the Record-Chronicle when council member Chris Watts expressed concern about excluding marijuana odor as a probable cause for police to search.

“My concern is that this notion of odor is not probable cause for any search,” Watts said. “Does that become a de facto shield for stuff that isn’t in plain sight?”

“That’s right,” Dixon replied.

Stevens mentioned the FBI and studies don’t show a link between cannabis use and violence. He’s somewhat correct. There are some studies that don’t show a link, but there are others that do. Yet, there’s no consensus among the scientific community, according to a Sept. 4, 2019, PolitiFact report.

In fact, a 2014 study by the University of Texas at Dallas found that medical marijuana legalization doesn’t lead to more crime but instead “found some evidence of decreasing rates of some types of violent crime,” the study’s lead author, Robert Morris, said in a press release.

But as Dorsai Rafiei and Nathan Kolla from the Violence Prevention Neurobiological Research Unit pointed out in a December 2021 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “There are several limitations in the cannabis and violence literature.

“First, there is considerable variability in study design, resulting in differing methodologies. The definitions and measures of cannabis use, violence, and aggression also differ greatly across studies.”

Denton’s Proposition B marijuana initiative comes at a time when the ACLU is demanding an end to the “war on marijuana” and two-thirds of U.S. adults believe marijuana should be legal for medicinal and recreational use, Pew Research reports.

A majority of Texans agree, according to a recent Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler survey.

Shoemaker did offer some assurances to the Record-Chronicle in his Oct. 13 interview. He mentioned that police would figure out what specifically they can and cannot do while also being cognizant of what is happening at the state level if the ordinance does pass in November.

“If this were to be decriminalized on a federal level at some point down the road — which there’s talks about — then that changes the aspects of things to some extent,” Shoemaker said. “But we’re not there yet.”