Ken Paxton Attacks Austin’s Lenient Marijuana Policy

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“What was Ken Paxton smoking when he filed this lawsuit?”

That was U.S. Rep. Greg Casar’s reaction to the attorney general’s Jan. 31 announcement that Paxton had filed a lawsuit against Austin and four other Texas cities to reverse their policies decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Paxton heaped up Nixonian bombast in publicizing the lawsuit, describing marijuana as “an illicit substance that psychologists have increasingly linked to psychosis and other negative consequences.” He demonized Austin and the nearby communities of San Marcos, Elgin, and Killeen, saying, “I will not stand idly by as cities run by pro-crime extremists deliberately violate Texas law and promote the use of illicit drugs.”

Paxton’s critics noted that the decriminalization lawsuit arrived on the same day that Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy denied the A.G.’s offer to settle a different suit: the ongoing 2020 whistleblower complaint against him alleging that he fired four of his top lieutenants after they told the FBI he was abusing his office. Paxton had offered to concede the truth of the allegations against him in the whistleblower lawsuit – while simultaneously maintaining his innocence. “Those seem to me to be contradictory positions,” Mauzy said, rejecting Paxton’s request.

Local advocates responded to Paxton’s marijuana gambit with a mixture of amusement and disgust. Casar scoffed at the A.G.’s priorities: “Local resources should go to keeping people safe, not chasing people down for low level pot offenses. Our local policies are perfectly legal.”

Casar led the effort to decriminalize marijuana as a member of Austin City Council in 2020. That summer, APD ordered officers to refrain from making arrests or issuing citations for marijuana possession unless the case was part of a narcotics investigation or involved a violent felony. In 2022, 85% of Austin voters approved a formal ordinance enshrining the policy in city code.

Julie Oliver, the executive director of Ground Game Texas, was one of Casar’s allies in the decrim effort. She noted that similar propositions to decriminalize marijuana won supermajorities in the cities that Paxton is suing, including in San Marcos, where the proposal won 82% of the vote, Elgin (74%), Killeen (69%), and Denton (71%).

“This is an incredibly popular issue in every city where we’ve collected the signatures and put it on the ballot,” Oliver said. “I’m surprised this is the hill that Ken Paxton wants to die on.”

Oliver said that Paxton’s lawsuit won’t change the way cities handle marijuana possession anytime soon or affect the organizing that Ground Game Texas is doing in three additional cities, where they expect success on marijuana decriminalization in upcoming elections. “The lawsuit is going to take years to play out through the courts,” she said. “I suspect that the cities will defend the policies that their voters overwhelmingly supported at the ballot box. And in my opinion, this is an assault on democracy – the voters spoke. It is completely legitimate for a city to designate its own priorities.”

San Marcos passed its marijuana decriminalization measure in November 2022, with social justice organizers Mano Amiga collecting signatures to get the measure on the ballot and encouraging a huge turnout, which wound up flipping many local offices from red to blue. The group’s communications director, Sam Benavides, rejected Paxton’s characterization of San Marcos citizens as “pro-crime extremists” and said the true radical is Paxton himself, as he defies Supreme Court orders to stop obstructing federal enforcement of border law and continues to try to overthrow the 2020 election.

“Paxton should focus on preparing for his own deposition for corruption rather than undemocratically defying the will of Texas voters,” Benavides said.

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