Killeen residents will decide in November whether to decriminalize low-level amounts marijuana after City Council members on Tuesday unanimously voted against adopting an initiative ordinance.
The vote was 6-0, with Councilman Ramon Alvarez absent from the meeting.
The move came after 21 people during a public hearing talked in support or opposition to the ordinance that required that “Killeen police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses, except in the limited circumstances.”
“On May 25, there was an initiative petition to eliminate low-level marijuana enforcement,” Assistant City Attorney Asha Pender said. “On June 14, the city secretary verified (1,018) signatures. You have to take final action by Aug. 13. It still has to go to the electors by the next uniform election day.”
That date is Nov. 8.
“The staff recommendation is that you do not approve this ordinance” because it is prohibited by the Texas Local Government Code, Pender said.
One of the 21 speakers, Sean Price, a U.S. Army veteran, asked council members not to adopt the ordinance.
“I rise in opposition to this,” he said. “The marijuana today is not what I had when I was a child. It’s highly potent and very dangerous. There’s heightened psychogenic offenses that happen when people get into the high-grade stuff. Now, they are mixing it with different products.”
Price was not alone in his opposition.
“If you decriminalize within the city, you’re going to do harm,” Holly Teel said. “How are you going to stop the gang members having a war over who gets to sell those two ounces?”
The petition ordinance residents will consider in November applies to up to 4 ounces, which is a misdemeanor offense.
“There’s no way you can do this,” Teel said. “Our officers are going to have to face those who seek territory. You have made Killeen, Texas, a hotbed (for drug activity). Right now, our city has more problems than one stunt by a political party — a Democrat political party — to come in here and distract from facts.”
Teel was referring to Louie Minor and Julie Oliver, representatives of Ground Game Texas, a group of progressive Democrats advocating for the decriminalization initiative in Killeen and in other cities, including Harker Heights, Denton, San Marcos and Elgin.
Austin voters approved a similar measure in May.
“I want you to vote ‘no’ on this petition,” Minor said. “Send it to the voters. Let the voters tell you what they want in their city … and let the courts figure it out. Over 3,000 people signed (the petition), and a lot of council members are on here with less than that number of votes. You’ll see when we get over 75% of this passed in November.”
Oliver, Ground Game Texas co-founder and attorney, told council members they have the authority to adopt the ordinance.
“You have a ministerial duty to act. We are asking you to let the voters decide to decriminalize a misdemeanor offense. We are not asking voters to decriminalize a felony offense. You exercise what is called ‘local control.’ Let me be clear: We cannot legalize marijuana tonight with this initiative. We can only stop enforcement through local control.”
Oliver was among about 70 people to attend the meeting.
“Killeen may be very proud,” initiative supporter Heather McNeely said. “It is the first city in the state to ban no-knock warrants. This is the same. We can make a difference.”
And she drew laughter when she told the City Council that many antiquated laws remain on the books.
“In Belton, you can still beat your wife on Sundays,” she said. “Are we still enforcing that? All I’m saying is make me proud. If you aren’t going to vote on it today, put it on the ballot in November.”
Under the city’s charter, Killeen City Council members are required to send the initiative to ballot if they do not adopt an ordinance.
The same applied in Harker Heights, where the same ordinance was defeated, 4-0 Tuesday, sending it to the November ballot as well.
Eleven residents spoke at the Harker Heights City Council meeting, with five people expressing their support and six in opposition.
“This definitely puts people’s safety at risk,” former Killeen City Councilwoman Melissa Brown said of the proposed ordinance at Killeen’s meeting Tuesday. “In March, we had one of the highest homicide rates in the history of Killeen. Our police chief attributes a lot of that to gangs and drugs.”
She, and others after her, warned that other law enforcement agencies, including the Texas Department of Public Safety and Bell County Sheriff’s Office, do not have to follow Killeen’s ordinance on non-enforcement.
“We spend all this time arguing over stuff like this,” she said. “Unless you accept it as written, it has to go to the ballot. Whatever you pass and say this is what we want to move forward is what ends up on the ballot.”
Still, David Bass voiced his support for decriminalization.
“City Council, I urge you to vote ‘yes’ tonight on this initiative,” he said. “In my opinion, our City Council is doing a great job moving our city forward, and I’m proud to live in Killeen. This issue tonight is about justice.” Arresting people for small amounts of cannabis is unjust.”
Others asked the City Council not to adopt the ordinance, including Robert Sperbeck, Donald Baker and Chris Bray.
“The young people are the ones who are going to suffer on this,” Bray said. “It is a gateway drug that is well-known. To legislate something in the city will negatively affect the city.”
“I oppose this ordinance. Marijuana is not an innocuous drug. The human brain is not fully developed until you’re 25. Smoking marijuana before that will destroy your brain.”
Other residents, such as former Mayor Pro Tem Shirley Fleming, said they support decriminalization for medical reasons.
“My husband died in the hospital in lots of pain,” Fleming said. “That was 11 years ago. He did not have the opportunity to get medical marijuana like they have now. I watched him suffer. When you finish your term here, what kind of legacy are you going to leave? We did not force (residents) to sign the petition. Please, council, listen to the people.”
The ordinance does not address the use of medical marijuana.
Council members thanked the 21 people who spoke during the public hearing.
“This is truly what representative democracy is about,” Councilwoman Jessica Gonzalez said. “Whether you are for or against this issue, this is not a dictatorship here. The next step is to take it to ballot, let the voters have their voice heard. My hope is that this will stimulate people to get curious about the governmental process.”
Councilman Michael Boyd expressed a similar sentiment.
“Thank you to every citizen, resident who came and spoke,” he said. “I do believe this is something that should go to the ballot for you to determine instead of seven council members.”
City Manager Kent Cagle did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
In other business Tuesday, council members tabled approving a resolution that would increase rates at Stonetree Golf Club.