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Denton police, city staff and county officials respond to marijuana decriminalization ordinance

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.

Less than 24 hours after its passage, Denton city staff and police released a press release regarding the implementation of the marijuana decriminalization ordinance, claiming that some provisions won’t be implemented until U.S. Congress and the Texas Legislature amend related laws.

The University of North Texas, Texas Woman's University and the Denton County Sheriff's Office also shared reactions with the Denton Record-Chronicle Wednesday.

Proposition B implements the city’s first marijuana ordinance, directing police not to arrest or cite for misdemeanor marijuana amounts and to use the odor of marijuana or hemp for probable cause except in limited circumstances or use city funds or personnel to test THC concentration.

In the Nov. 9 release, Denton Police Chief Doug Shoemaker pointed out that low-level amounts of marijuana haven’t been on the police’s radar for several years. He said that police policy allows officers to use discretion to continue investigating after they discover marijuana, if they believe that other crimes are being committed.

“This will continue to be the case,” Shoemaker said. “With that said, officers must maintain discretion to be able to keep our community safe from harm. When marijuana possession pairs with other crimes that affect public safety, including offenses such as driving while intoxicated or firearms violations, such acts cannot and will not be ignored.”

Marijuana in conjunction with other crimes is discussed in the new ordinance. According to Article V, Marijuana Enforcement, of the ordinance, “The only circumstance in which Denton police officers are permitted to issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession is when such citations or arrests are part of (1) the investigation of a felony level narcotics case that has been designated as a high priority investigation by a Denton police commander, assistant chief of police, or the chief of police; and/or (2) the investigation of a violent felony.”

It further requests that, in every other instance other than those described above, Denton police officers have to write a detailed report if they have probable cause to believe that a substance is marijuana and seize it.

After the press release was issued Wednesday morning, Decriminalize Denton, the local grassroots organization behind the ordinance, were quick to respond on social media.

“This defiant response from city admin refusing to follow a democratically decided new law is ill advised,” former Denton City Council member Deb Armintor responded on behalf of the Decriminalize Denton’s board in a Nov. 9 post on Twitter to Decimalize Denton’s Twitter page. “Staff don't have authority to overrule city law. They think Prop B contradicts state law. We disagree. But that's for the courts to decide, not staff.”

Armintor added that they would be meeting with their partners at Ground Game Texas, a grassroots organization that helped them with the cannabis decriminalization ordinance, to provide a longer response this week and congratulated Denton residents on their “overwhelming democratic win.”

A record-breaking 32,610 votes were cast in favor of the ordinance, according to voting results from Election Day on Tuesday.

“They can’t take that away from us so easily,” she wrote.

“The people of Denton have spoken. On November 8, voters overwhelmingly approved an ordinance to stop enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses. This is now the policy of Denton.

“City staff have no authority to contradict the will of Denton voters, who exercised their power under the Texas Constitution to adopt a citizen initiative. Ground Game Texas joins with Decriminalize Denton in demanding that the City Council respect the will of Denton voters. We will be watching closely.”

While the new ordinance does limit Denton police’s ability when it comes to low-level marijuana possession or suspicion of possession, it doesn’t have any impact on how law enforcement at Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office or any other agency outside of the city.

"With the passing of Denton’s Proposition B Tuesday, UNT remains bound by state law and the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, which outlines specifically how marijuana incidents are handled through the university’s police and Dean of Students," Julie Elliott Payne, UNT's assistant vice president of communications, wrote in a Nov. 9 email to the Record-Chronicle.

Payne said that UNT is dedicated to student safety and encouraged the university community to study the new city policies and how it could impact them.

According to UNT's 2020 Drug Free Schools and Communities Act Biennial Report, students committing first-time low severity drug violations — possession of drug paraphernalia or possession or use of less than 2 ounces of marijuana often result in Level II Conduct Probation (about a year), a referral to the Substance Use Resource and Education Program and a warning that any further violations could result in more several sanctions.

From January 2019 to time of the report in 2020, 374 students were referred to SURE for code of conduct violations, according to the UNT's 2020 report.

Texas Woman's University took a similar stance on Wednesday when reached via email. The university's assistant VP of communications Matt Flores said, “Although Denton voters passed Proposition B on Tuesday, Nov. 8, which decriminalizes some misdemeanor marijuana offenses, it is important to note that Texas Woman’s, like other state-supported universities, is bound by state and federal law. TWU requires a drug-free educational and workplace community as defined in university policy.”

Denton County Sheriff spokesperson Capt. Orlando "Hino" Hinojosa offered a short response via email, echoing what other law enforcement agencies are claiming.

“The Denton County Sheriff’s Office will continue to enforce State Law throughout Denton County including areas within the city limits of Denton,” Hinojosa said.

The Denton police chief reiterated what Hinojosa told the Record-Chronicle Wednesday morning and stressed that education about how this ordinance will unfold when it conflicts with state law is important.

Shoemaker also pointed out that Denton police have discussed this issue with other law enforcement agencies that operate in the city and realized that they’re “all different policing agencies which have different roles” and “different approaches to things than UNT or the county or our Federal partners and state partners for that matter.”

“State law requires us to fall in line with whatever the state laws happen to be, which is the same for any municipality in the state,” Shoemaker said. “So I think what I’m concerned about is misinformation that people may feel and how they may react or do something that might be contrary to what the state law allows. We live in a jurisdiction where there are multiple police agencies. The last thing we want is somebody to get hung up on something that’s going to be problematic for them.

“So just the reality of, ‘Look, here’s the objective, look at everything to make sure people are educated appropriately on what can and can’t be done,’ I think is very important,” he added.