Denton City Council votes against moving forward with marijuana enforcement ordinance
The Denton City Council voted 4-3 to not move forward with a council-approved marijuana ordinance that would have offered budgetary teeth to the one approved by voters in November by preventing the city from spending funds for THC testing.
The voter-approved ordinance, also known as Proposition B, already prohibits the city from spending budgetary funds on THC testing. But, according to the city charter, since a voter-led initiative put it on the ballot, it doesn't have budgetary power.
District 1 council member Vicki Byrd, a former police officer, was the deciding vote, saying it was more important for her to support the police who were put in the crossfire when, in November, voters took away their power of discretion and their tool to use marijuana odor as a probable cause.
Byrd stressed that the city manager, the police and the police chief were doing their best and making misdemeanor marijuana offenses a low priority for officers.
"My issue is we don’t have a marijuana problem here in town," Byrd said. "People smoked it yesterday, today and tomorrow. What difference is it going to make, and how is this going to change use or delivery of the product? … It is everywhere.
“Now my problem is we put our police officers right in the middle of it, and they've got to be 100% and got to make decisions, and we’re putting that stress and all, bringing this bunch of confusion. We’ve been trying to find a way. … I don’t want law enforcement officers to be in a predicament. I want them to do what they are supposed to do.”
Several police officers appeared during the public comment section to share their stories about how they have used cannabis odor as a probable cause, in turn leading to the discovery of weapons and evidence of other crimes.
Eric Beckwith, a sergeant with the Denton police, said he has been in Denton for 21 years, raised a daughter here and has a young son. Like other officers, he is invested in the community that he serves and protects. Beckwith said using the smell of cannabis as probable cause can help get guns off the streets.
"I know what comes along with degrees of marijuana possession, and officers need discretion to enforce the laws," Beckwith said. "When I first started, there were a lot of low-level arrests. That was a different time, and we aware that the times change. We’re not out to throw everyone in jail."
Other officers discussed how marijuana enforcement has changed over the years and that they are making it a low priority now while still upholding their oath of office, which they claimed the ordinance was asking them to violate.
Some officers also offered what Decriminalize Denton and other Proposition B supporters called misinformation, such as stories of people overdosing on marijuana and marijuana leading to violent crime.
“You cannot overdose on THC, and if one of the cops disagrees, they can come over to my house, and we’ll figure that out together,” Nick Stevens from Decriminalize Denton told council members and the packed council chambers. “The CDC and the federal government acknowledge this.”
Stevens also said that some of the concerns police mentioned were already addressed in the November ordinance. For example, police can take someone to jail if they are driving under the influence of marijuana. They can cite and arrest people if misdemeanor marijuana offense is associated with a felony.
Other supporters said the city could be opening itself up to a lawsuit by allowing police to use the smell of cannabis for probable cause since they have no idea if the person is smoking marijuana or legal hemp unless the person admits to it. According to Mayor Pro Tem Brian Beck, police are destroying the evidence instead of sending it off for THC testing — in part due to the expensive cost of testing — to make sure they aren’t violating a person’s rights.
But it’s unclear why police didn’t show up to the council before the November election to share their concerns. As Beck stressed, the voter-approved ordinance is already on the books, and he said all he was asking the council to do was give it the budgetary teeth it needed.
Beck voted to support a council-approved ordinance.
Council member Chris Watts, who was against it, disagreed and said that wasn’t the pitch Beck had made several weeks ago as a two-minute pitch to council members and that he instead wanted the council to pass an ordinance identical to the one voters approved in November.
Watts said he agrees people’s lives shouldn’t be ruined over misdemeanor amounts of marijuana, but he didn’t support telling police how to do their jobs or asking them to violate their oaths of office.
“I don’t disagree with the spirit of the ordinance,” Watts said.
Mayor Gerard Hudspeth, who was also against a council ordinance, discussed the limitations they have in telling the police what to do. He also mentioned what a judge overseeing Bell County’s lawsuit against Killeen over its marijuana enforcement ordinance claimed about the city’s proposition violating state law and the Texas Constitution, though the judge isn't able to rule on the case yet since Bell County may not have the power to sue Killeen in civil court without the attorney general’s approval.
Council member Paul Meltzer suggested that they approve the council-supported ordinance and have staff come back in 60 days to suggest what changes need to be made so that they could fully implement what the voters passed in November. He mentioned that they could look at what other cities such as Elgin, Harker Heights and Killeen were doing to implement similar ordinances. He agreed that the state might sue over the issue, or it might not.
“I don’t have a quarrel with what I heard from the police or Proposition B supporters, and those points were all valid before the election,” Meltzer said. “... [But] the people have spoken whether you like it or not.”
CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-220-4299 and via Twitter at @writerontheedge.