Tension is building in a small Texas city between police, advocates, and elected officials. In Denton, Texas, police—sworn to protect and serve—are allegedly ignoring the will of the people, continuing citations and arrests despite a cannabis decriminalization measure that was approved last year.
NBC DFW reports that a “battle is brewing” in the city over who controls the way cannabis laws are enforced.
According to a special presentation with a three-month report by Denton City Manager Sara Hensley at a City Council session on Tuesday, police in the city aren’t abiding by the voter-approved decriminalization measure passed last November, and are citing and arresting people for low-level cannabis possession anyways. She also provided an explanation.
During the Midterm elections on Nov. 5, 2022, voters in Denton approved Proposition B with over 70% of the vote to decriminalize possession of four ounces or less of cannabis, with some exceptions. It also bans police from using the smell test for probable cause and restricts city money from being used on THC drug testing. Proposition B became effective Nov. 22, once canvassing the election was completed.
According to the City Manager, the City of Denton Police Department are acting as though the proposition never passed and are still arresting and citing people for low-level cannabis possession. Hensley explained that state and federal laws supersede city law, and that the police are sworn in by the state.
Denton City Councilmembers Vicki Byrd and Brandon Chase McGee asked why the law isn’t being observed. Councilmember Byrd asked, “Can you explain to the people at home how someone nobody elected such as yourself, is empowered to create public policy even after 32,000 voters provided a directive otherwise?” Mayor Pro Tem Brian Beck also chimed in, asking similar questions.
The City Manager responded by saying that the police are sworn in to the state and therefore the city law cannot override Texas law.
Considering the work that Decriminalize Denton put into getting Proposition B on the ballot and spreading awareness is like a slap in the face for cannabis advocates in the area.
“It’s the most popular thing that Dentonites have done and un-elected bureaucrats, who none of us can vote for, are telling us that your democracy—your vote—none of that matters,” said Nick Stevens, member of the group Decriminalize Denton.
The Denton Police Department provided a statement when Proposition B was implemented last November.
“As a forward-thinking agency, marijuana possession alone has not been a priority for the Denton Police Department for several years,” said Denton Police Chief Doug Shoemaker. “This will continue to be the case. 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.”
But the Denton Police Department added this to the press release:
“The Police Department will continue to assess aspects of this ordinance, as passed by voters, to determine what may be implemented in accordance with both the current law as well as the voices of the population we serve.”
Between June 2021 and July 2022, of the 65 arrests that the Denton Police Department made for cannabis possession under four ounces. But keep in mind that 15 of these charges accompanied other charges unrelated to cannabis, and weapons were involved in 31.
Denton joined San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights in Texas, to overwhelmingly approve local ballot propositions to decriminalize low-level possession, after Austin decriminalized cannabis earlier. In other cities, there doesn’t appear to be a problem implementing those measures.
How police continue to enforce laws in the city remains up for debate.