Austin has effectively decriminalized marijuana after the city council unanimously approved a resolution that will largely end arrests for low-level possession.

Council members voted 9-0 in favour of instructing Austin Police to stop arresting people found with small amounts of cannabis if a successful prosecution looks unlikely. They also voted not to spend money on testing marijuana unless it is linked to a high priority felony such as trafficking or violent crime.

A new state law legalizing hemp went into effect in June 2019. It distinguishes hemp from marijuana, stating that the latter has more than 0.3% THC content.

This has caused all manner of problems for law enforcement officials. If they find someone with marijuana, they must test it to see if the THC level is above 0.3% before they can think about initiating a prosecution.

It is a costly and time-consuming process, but prosecutors have been dismissing marijuana cases brought to them without testing. Austin police have continued to charge people for possession, only for them to be turned away when they arrive at court for a hearing.

Some police forces in Texas have started to pay for testing themselves in order to secure prosecutions. But Austin police force has now been instructed to avoid paying for testing as part of the resolution passed.

Yet Police Chief Brian Manley was quick to point out that the city council does not have the authority to direct his department not to enforce a state law. Others pointed out that the city council has the power to disband the police department, so Manley might feel compelled to fall in line.

Twenty residents spoke at the council meeting, and police union head Ken Casady provided the sole voice of opposition. It took less than 90 minutes for council members to agree to the resolution.

They said HB 1325 makes it virtually impossible to distinguish, beyond a reasonable doubt, between plant forms of marijuana and hemp without a lab test to measure THC concentration. They acknowledged the city has limited testing resources available to it, and that it is not prepared to pay for new equipment.

The city council also noted that communities of colour are disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of marijuana possession laws in Austin and across the country, arguing that it should not be a priority.

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