Lubbock citizens to vote on marijuana initiative, but city leaders wonder if it’s legal

Adam Hernandez in Lubbock, Texas

(Photo above: Adam Hernandez speaks to local media after a City of Lubbock press conference concerning marijuana.)

Lubbock voters will decide if police should enforce misdemeanor marijuana laws. However, local officials wonder if it’s legal for Lubbock to simply look the other way on marijuana.

If the measure succeeds at the ballot box next year, the question is what happens next. Two local attorneys told Lubbock Lights a city ordinance cannot undo state law. But supporters think there is room to make the ordinance work. They also think it will pass.

“This isn’t an Austin ordinance brought to Lubbock,” said Joshua Shankles, managing director of an advocacy group called Lubbock Compact, which organized the signature petition. Shankles spoke during a public hearing in front of the Lubbock City Council.

“This was crafted to be in accord with the state constitution, with the Texas Criminal Code, and it was also crafted to be in accord with our own city code,” Shankles said.

After the public hearing, the council was unpersuaded and voted unanimously to reject the proposal which came by way of a signature petition, sending it to Lubbock voters.

How we got here

In October, members of Lubbock Compact presented more than 10,000 signatures in support of the ordinance. They had 60 days to get 4,800 or more valid signatures of registered voters in the city.

On November 2, the city secretary certified there were more than enough valid signatures to force a City Council vote. On November 14, the council rejected the proposed ordinance, sending it to Lubbock voters next May 4.

The proposed ordinance is to “reduce enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses.” It only affects Class A misdemeanors – up to a year in jail – and Class B misdemeanors – up to six months in jail.

It specifically avoids any change to enforcement of felony narcotics investigations, and police could still enforce the law with juveniles.

If approved, it directs officers with the Lubbock Police Department to make no arrests and issue no citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession – with some exceptions.

City leaders are against it

Before and after the public hearing, Lubbock Lights reached out to the Lubbock Police Department to request an interview with either Greg Rushin, interim police chief, or an assistant chief. Police declined, saying it was a political matter.

After the hearing, Lubbock Lights also reached out to Sunshine Stanek, the criminal district attorney for Lubbock County. She declined to comment.

In the hearing, Tray Payne, mayor, said, “I think that the proposed ordinance is directly in conflict with state law. I do not think it’s appropriate that we try to contradict state law in this manner.”

Payne, however, was complementary of Lubbock Compact and the work it took to collect enough signatures to force a vote.

Mark McBrayer, councilman for District 3, said, “There’s nothing we can do about that as a city.”

“We are established by the state, and we have to enforce the laws of the state,” he further explained. But he also complemented the work to collect signatures.

Latrelle Joy, councilwoman for District 6, said she took an oath to defend the law and the constitution.

“Because of that, I cannot vote for this proposal,” Joy said.

Councilwoman Jennifer Wilson said, “Our charter is very clear.”

“I think at the city level this is unenforceable,” she said, but also added her respect for the successful signature petition drive.

Massengale and Martinez-Garcia

Steve Massengale, mayor pro-tem and councilman for District 4, and Christy Martinez-Garcia, councilwoman for District 1, both spoke one-on-one with Lubbock Lights prior to the public hearing. They both opposed the ordinance.

“The contacts I’ve had are very much against what they’re proposing in the ordinance,” Massengale said. “I tend to feel the same way.” He can only speak for what he heard in his district, adding he suspects the ordinance will not pass next May.

Massengale had not talked with Lubbock Police yet. But he was interested in hearing what law enforcement would say. He believes people who are willing to break the law at a misdemeanor level might be willing to break the law “at other levels.”

He did not feel like marijuana laws are a waste of time for Lubbock police officers.

“There are some vague parts of the ordinance that concern me,” he added.

Martinez-Garcia said petition organizers spoke to people with the assumption all Hispanics would support it.

“That really disappointed me that they think that we’re just all getting high. I was insulted by that,” Martinez-Garcia said.

“It may be medicinal for some people,” she said. And she appreciated the effort to get signatures and public support.

In the public hearing, Martinez-Garcia raised another issue she saw. The ordinance would only apply to the Lubbock Police Department. It could not stop other agencies from enforcing marijuana laws such as the Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office and Texas Department of Public Safety.

“This is going to cause great confusion,” she said.

Lubbock Compact counts on public support

Shankles was not the only representative of Lubbock Compact to speak at the public hearing.

“We do have the authority to do this,” said Adam Hernandez, the group’s communications chair.

“The heart of our ordinance is pretty simple. We just don’t think people should go to jail for personal use of marijuana here,” Hernandez said.

Lubbock Compact told the City Council more than 10,000 signatures were collected from contact with roughly 13,000 people.

“We absolutely think it’ll pass,” Hernandez said to Lubbock Lights a few days after the public hearing.

Signatures came from “every profession that you can think of” including sheriff’s deputies, LPD officers, doctors and pastors, he said.

“The support is very widespread,” Hernandez said.

A poll from the Texas Politics Project in December 2022, said 72 percent of Texas voters supported reducing the punishment for small amounts of marijuana to a citation and a fine.

“Since 2017, no more than 20 percent of Texans have expressed support for the total criminalization of marijuana possession,” a University of Texas description of the poll said, adding, “… Only 17 percent said they would endorse a complete prohibition on marijuana usage, including for medicinal purposes.”

There could be challenges ahead

Hernandez admits a sheriff’s deputy or DPS trooper is unaffected by the ordinance and could still arrest someone in Lubbock for a misdemeanor marijuana charge. Hernandez said Lubbock Compact was perfectly honest about that when collecting signatures.

It might be possible an LPD officer would disregard the ordinance and make an arrest anyway.

“The idea of the ordinance itself is that the arrests should not take place,” Hernandez said.

Five Texas cities before Lubbock have done this – Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen and San Marcos, he said.

In the case of Killeen, Bell County sued to stop what it called decriminalization of marijuana.

The county claimed in part, “Patchwork enforcement is undesirable in any area of law.”

A judge agreed and ruled, “It is utterly contrary to Texas law. It is unconstitutional. It is unenforceable. It is invalid.”

Killeen appealed.

The city said in court records said, “A plain reading of Killeen’s policy … does not decriminalize marijuana, but instead focuses marijuana enforcement on cases involving felony drug amounts or violent crime.”

The appeals court has not yet ruled on the matter.

Back in Lubbock, County Judge Curtis Parrish said no one has approached him about following the example of Bell County.  His preference would be to not have a lawsuit between Lubbock and Lubbock County on the issue of marijuana.

Author: James Clark- James Clark is the associate editor of Lubbock Lights. He worked in radio, television and digital media for a combined total of more than 30 years. He was Director of Digital News Content at KAMC, KLBK and for nearly 10 years.