The Killeen City Council will be put in a bit of a bind Tuesday.
Members will be asked to start the process on an ordinance to decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana, under most circumstances.
And because the group behind the effort — Ground Game Texas — has gathered enough valid signatures of Killeen residents to meet the city charter’s requirement, the council will be obligated to grant the petitioners’ request.
That means that within 60 days, the council must have a public hearing on the proposed amendment and vote on it. If the council fails to approve it, or passes an amended form of the ordinance, the council must place the ordinance on the Nov. 8 ballot, no later than Aug. 13.
The proposed Killeen ordinance would state that police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses, except in limited circumstances — such as the investigation of a felony-level narcotics case that has been designated as a high-priority investigation, or the investigation of a violent felony.
Ground Game Texas, a group of Progressive Democrats, also makes the point that changing the law would benefit veterans who could use marijuana for medical pain management, without having a legal stigma attached.
No doubt, the ordinance has its supporters, including some on the City Council.
There’s just one small catch: The proposed measure, if approved, would be contrary to state law on marijuana possession.
What that means is that if council members — who are sworn to uphold the laws of the city and state — vote to approve the proposed amendment, it could be a violation of their oath of office.
Just moving the ordinance forward for a public vote in the fall, with the knowledge that passage would result in a measure that conflicts with state law, could be viewed as a violation.
Mayor Debbie Nash-King acknowledged as much in an email to a Herald reporter last week. In part, she said, “I can see the pros and cons from both perspectives on this topic of debate. I can also respect the decision of the residents that took the time to sign the marijuana decriminalization petition. However, I took an oath of office as the City of Killeen Mayor to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State. Therefore, I will continue to follow the state and federal laws concerning decriminalizing marijuana.”
Two local candidates for Bell County commissioner — Louie Minor and Stacey Wilson — are actively involved in the push to decriminalize marijuana, leading the petition drive in Killeen, as well as in neighboring Harker Heights. As their names and the marijuana ordinance may appear on the ballot this November, Minor and Wilson are putting themselves in a potentially compromising position — giving at least the appearance of injecting city politics into an election for county office.
Passage of the ordinance would put Killeen police in a difficult spot as well. The city ordinance would ban officers from enforcing certain violations for low-level pot possession; however, state law would still obligate them to respond to these infractions.
Earlier this year, the Killeen Police Department issued a statement on the issue: “We want the community to know that department does not support to decriminalize marijuana and we will continue to follow the statute, Texas Health and Safety Code 481.121 — Possession of Marijuana, which is the Texas State Law.”
Last month, Austin voters approved a similar ordinance, with 85% of the ballots cast backing the change in enforcement. This followed a petition drive that garnered more than 20,000 signatures.
And last year, a statewide measure to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession breezed through the Texas House of Representatives with broad support, only to languish in the Senate.
For his part, Gov. Greg Abbott has acknowledged the need to change the law, saying the state was not well served by having its jails filled with people arrested in possession of low levels of marijuana.
Certainly, figures showing the disproportionate marijuana enforcement are too significant to ignore. According to data provided by Ground Game Texas, Black residents make up 40% of Killeen’s population, but account for nearly 80% of community members arrested for marijuana possession.
Regardless of whether the proposed ordinance is adopted, that’s a statistic that local law enforcement officials must endeavor to change.
To date, there has been little organized opposition in Killeen to the push for decriminalization.
Unofficial polls, including an online survey by this newspaper, have shown broad support for the change among respondents.
Still, any ordinance that goes against state law has the potential for negative consequences.
Lenient municipal marijuana possession laws could have the effect of drawing drug suppliers seeking to lure potential customers.
And given Killeen’s recent challenges with gangs and violence, it’s fair to ask whether the council — or the city’s voters — should back an ordinance that fails to discourage drug use by our community’s youth.
A potential unintended consequence of a more lenient ordinance might be a negative appraisal of the Fort Hood community by military planners — at a time when the Pentagon is considering another round of BRAC cuts and troop realignments.
In the end, public support for amending the law should not be the only basis to make a change.
Many Texas residents oppose the state’s open-container law, which prohibits open alcoholic beverage containers in a vehicle. Others want the state to do away with its helmet requirement when operating a motorcycle.
But both of these laws protect the safety of the driver, as well as others.
If local entities were to override these laws, drivers would find themselves confronting a patchwork quilt of legal requirements, depending on where they travel — and safety would be compromised in the process.
The proposed ordinance on marijuana possession would have a similar impact in the Killeen area.
A person with a small amount of marijuana in the car could drive around Killeen without fear of being arrested on a possession charge. But that could change if the driver heads over to Copperas Cove or travels to Temple.
A situation where state law is followed in some cities and not in others has the potential to cause problems for police, the courts and those who ultimately stand accused.
Certainly, Killeen police have discretion when they make a traffic stop, and in many cities such discretion is an unwritten policy already in place.
But having something in writing that eliminates their options is different altogether, as Austin’s police officers are no doubt finding out.
Should Killeen decide to break the law by remaking the law?
It will be up to the city’s elected leaders — or its voters — to make that call.