In the last quarter of 2020, October 1 through December 31, Austin Police Department made zero arrests for possession of marijuana – the first such instance since the city began releasing quarterly Cite-Eligible Custody Arrests reports in 2018.
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who in January 2020 championed a unanimously-approved resolution blocking the use of city resources to test THC content in evidence of low-level marijuana cases and directing the City Manager to eliminate arrests in those cases, says the recent report data reinforces that local government can make significant change in the community.
“When we first passed the resolution to end marijuana arrests in this city, the police chief [now-retired Brian Manley] held a press conference the next day about how he didn’t want to,” Casar says. “And we didn’t give up – we kept pushing. I had meeting after meeting with the police chief about why it was the right thing to do and that they couldn’t even prove these cases. In Houston, they wanted to prove these cases so they went ahead and bought a machine to test marijuana in order to lock folks up for cannabis possession. In Austin, we made it really clear we weren’t going to buy the machines and we were going to drive towards zero arrests for low-level cannabis possession and we finally got there.”
Sixteen months ago, well after a state bill legalizing hemp rendered law enforcement unable to differentiate between legal and illegal varieties of cannabis, Casar made clear his goals: “decrease personal marijuana arrests to the greatest extent possible under state law, when there’s no immediate threat to any person” and “get as close as we can to zero arrests.” Those marks having now been hit, what would Casar like to see happen next?
“We need to get more and more cities to follow our lead and it will become really clear, as it is here, that the sky doesn’t fall when you stop arresting people for pot,” he states. “That’s really important for us to get to the broader goal of legalization statewide. Decriminalization is not the ideal place. When the marketplace is underground it causes all sorts of problems.”
In July, after six months of refusing to change department protocols on misdemeanor marijuana arrests, former Police Chief Manley announced that APD would not arrest low-level marijuana users unless there was “an immediate threat to a person’s safety.” Austin still arrests and prosecutes felony marijuana charges, for which they contract outside lab work.
Casar, who’s been outspoken about the racial disparities of marijuana enforcement locally, believes a blanket policy against arresting for misdemeanor cannabis amounts helps correct the issue of racially disproportionate jailings.
“When there was discretion about giving someone a ticket verses arresting someone, we saw that it was overwhelmingly Black and brown Austinites that were being arrested,” he explains. “The best way to address that disparity was to ask why we were arresting people for low-level possession in the first place. Now there is no disparity.
“Being arrested is not a minor inconvenience,” he expounds. “For some people, it means that they could lose their job. It means they could lose income they need, they could lose their apartment, or their student aid. So this is about common sense, but it’s also an important racial justice issue: reducing incarceration in communities of color.
The very reason the City Manager’s office releases a quarterly report of discretionary arrest data is an aim to “reduce racial disparities,” as outlined in the Freedom City ordinances that council passed in 2018. The cite eligible arrest data typically arrives well after the preceding period has ended so quarter one of 2021 has not yet been released.
Casar says that while there’s been a decrease in overall arrests throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he attributes the total lack of Possession of Marijuana arrests to end 2020 purely to APD finally complying with council’s resolution.
”A drop from over 300 arrests in 2017 to zero is because council made it very clear that we don’t want hundreds of people losing their time and their sleep and their jobs – or worse – for cannabis possession.”
Asked whether he’s spoken to interim Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about continued adherence to the zero-arrest policy, Casar says:
“My understanding is that Chief Chacon will stick to this policy. I think we’re going to have to keep working with him on reducing arrests for low-level drug possession more generally. There’s a search for a more permanent police chief and I think it will be top of mind for many in the community to maintain this zero number and tell the story across the state that if you stop arresting people for simply having a small amount of cannabis on them, that it frees up police time for addressing violence and more significant issues.”