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Marijuana, abortion play key roles driving civic engagement in Lubbock leading into mayoral election

After hearing from the public in November, Lubbock’s city council praised the civic engagement this effort motivated but voted to reject the ordinance because they felt obligated by their oaths to the Texas Constitution and state laws.
Brad Burt
/
Texas Tech Public Media
After hearing from the public in November, Lubbock’s city council praised the civic engagement this effort motivated but voted to reject the ordinance because they felt obligated by their oaths to the Texas Constitution and state laws.

“Good morning, I am surprising myself. I didn't think I was gonna say anything.”

Sarah Stennett spoke to the Lubbock City Council in the public hearing centered on a proposed ordinance to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the City of Lubbock.

“I am a former Navy wife. I am a retired school teacher. I'm a borderline elderly lady. I'm not Black. I'm not Brown. And I'm not a marijuana user,” Stennett said. “But I do agree with some statements that we have all heard, which is I do not want my family and friends who may happen to be marijuana users to be criminalized because of their personal use of marijuana.”

The hearing began at 9 a.m., on Nov. 14. Stennett was one of seven Lubbockites to speak to the city council in favor of the ordinance, while two spoke against it.

The ordinance came to the City Council on a petition that garnered 10,540 signatures. The group driving the effort, Freedom Act Lubbock, partnered with the statewide organization, Ground Game Texas, to release the “marijuana impact report,” a compilation of data from Lubbock Police on the enforcement of marijuana laws in the city, emphasizing a disproportionate level of arrests of Black and Latino citizens.

Ground Game Texas has been part of advancing similar city-scaled efforts to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in places like Denton and Killeen. Other city councils have rejected these efforts on the argument that they are obligated to respect state laws.

‘A policy issue versus a legislative issue’

Lubbock’s city council praised the civic engagement this effort motivated but voted unanimously against the proposed ordinance, with similar arguments that they are bound by state laws despite Lubbock’s status as a Home Rule city. The Home Rule system was implemented in Texas in 1912 to give city charters more direct impact on their local government, unless state law prohibits it.

In comments after hearing from the public, Lubbock’s District 1 city council representative Christy Martinez-Garcia said she wanted to address “misinformation” and racial stereotypes that she felt were advanced by Freedom Act Lubbock’s report.

“One of the first requests that I made was, I want to see the numbers, I want to see the ethnic breakdown of the people that are being given citations for this claim that you guys made,” Martinez-Garcia said at the hearing. “And I didn't see the numbers reflected that you claimed.”

The report states Black residents make up 8.1% of Lubbock's population but account for 29% of marijuana arrests. Latinos are 37.1% of the population but represent 49.1% of these arrests. While white residents make up 50.1% of Lubbock’s population, they accounted for 22.8% of LPD’s arrests on marijuana charges over the past five years.

These numbers correlate with U.S. Census Bureau census data on Lubbock’s population demographics, as well as data from the Lubbock Police Department requested by Texas Tech Public Media.

LPD data showed more than 4,000 marijuana arrests between January 2018 and June 2023.
Brad Burt
/
Texas Tech Public Media
LPD data showed more than 4,000 marijuana arrests between January 2018 and June 2023.

“I had people going – hearing when you went door to door, hearing all the stuff about Hispanics, Hispanics, Blacks, Blacks, Hispanics, Blacks… A lot of misinformation that was shared with them,” Martinez-Garcia said. “For me, I didn't appreciate that. Where's the endorsement from all the Hispanic and Black organizations?”

In September, the Lubbock NAACP Political Action Committee endorsed Freedom Act Lubbock and the petition. Their release cited part of the marijuana report on enforcement and pointed to income data to show where the impact of that enforcement can inequitably affect the lives of some Lubbockites.

Data from 2021 showed the median per capita income for Black Lubbockites was $17,426, compared to a per capita income for white citizens of $35,315. For Latino citizens in Lubbock, the per capita income was $22,850. This disparity makes the impact of a maximum $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail for possession of two ounces or less of marijuana more prevalent for Black and Latino citizens.

A bipartisan group of Texas House Representatives introduced and passed a bill in 2021 that would have reduced sentencing for possession of small amounts of marijuana, limiting it to a citation without a trip to jail, but that bill failed to pass the Texas Senate.

In an interview after the hearing, Martinez-Garcia said her issue is still equity, but she also wants to know the full reasons why people are being arrested.

“I want to make sure that we're doing what we're supposed to do in our due diligence and if officers are arresting people, I want to know exactly why,” Martinez-Garcia said. “From what I understand, when there were situations like that, there were also warrants related to that.”

Out of more than 4,000 arrests between January 2018 and June 2023, LPD data showed that 58 cases included felony warrants and 688 included misdemeanor warrants.

According to LPD, while there may have been other charges related to issues like warrants, the data requested by Freedom Act Lubbock for their report covered marijuana-related arrests. Out of the 665 marijuana arrests reported in 2022, LPD reports 106 were for felony amounts more than four ounces.

Overall, data from Lubbock Police also confirmed a decrease in marijuana arrests in Lubbock since 2018, despite easier access since other states like neighboring New Mexico legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2021.

While this could be interpreted as fewer people currently using marijuana, poll data has shown the use of marijuana across the country has increased since legalization efforts reached the mainstream 10 years ago.

The concern then, as stated by supporters of the ordinance, would be if resources used by courts, prosecutors and jails amount to waste when used on those in possession of small amounts of marijuana. Bipartisan efforts to reform punishments for non-violent drug cases have been a response to overworked district attorney’s offices and overcrowded jails across Texas.

Mayor Tray Payne cited his experiences as a prosecutor for why he thinks this argument doesn’t hold much weight when it comes to a drug like marijuana. One significant factor is that many in law enforcement have already stopped placing possession of small amounts of marijuana as a high priority.

“I don't really recall but maybe one actual marijuana case that I ever tried. And that was large amounts and quantities. I was a federal prosecutor, there was not a lot of focus on low level misdemeanors. I believe we checked and there was one person that was actually in the county jail for marijuana possession,” Payne said. “I don't think Sunshine [Stanek] and her office are overcrowded because they're suddenly out prosecuting low level PDPs in possession of marijuana cases.”

However, Payne differentiated between what has happened in other parts of Texas like Dallas, where the county’s district attorney decided in 2019 to stop pursuing low-level marijuana offenses, and what’s been proposed in Lubbock, as a policy issue versus a legislative issue.

“There's been certain elected officials who say ‘We're not going to prosecute it,’ or ‘We're not going to enforce it,’” Payne said. “That's different than saying in the city of Lubbock, we're ordering the city attorney, we're ordering the city manager, we're ordering the chief of police not to do something that directly controverts state law.”

As the marijuana ordinance moves toward the May election, Payne said to him it would still be void, considering Lubbock police officers’ oath to the state, but local officials are looking toward what Texas’ attorney general will say.

“It's not settled law yet. And I think that's what makes this a difficult spot for a city to be in,” Payne said. “We anticipate that there will be an Attorney General request for an opinion. And then I think we’ll see what happens in May if it does or does not pass.”

Terisa Clark spoke at the hearing against the marijuana ordinance and noted she was active in Lubbock’s Sanctuary City for the Unborn election, a discussion which also led to questions about the function of enforcement.

“This ordinance is asking for the city and the law enforcement officials to not enforce a law that's on the books,” Clark said. “That was not what the ordinance for the Sanctuary City for the Unborn did, it asked for a private enforcement mechanism between citizens so they're not comparable, they are not the same.”

Still, many parts of Lubbock’s Sanctuary City for the Unborn discussion and the marijuana decriminalization proposal have already been compared.

Freedom Act organizer and Lubbock Compact communications chair, Adam Hernandez, expressed at the hearing how he believed the weekday morning timing played a role in the number of people who could turn up to speak.

Three years ago, Lubbock’s Sanctuary City for the Unborn hearing began at 5:30 p.m. and went on for about six hours, with around 150 people attending and 87 citizens voicing their opinions for and against a citizen-enforced mechanism to outlaw abortion in the city.

After the hearing, Mayor Payne gave the city council’s reason for why it was scheduled early.

“We had a special session this morning called at nine o'clock, because we were going to our planning session. The planning session was for councilors, we do it every year to get together, look at what we're going to do moving into this next budget year. So council had already planned on having this time available,” Payne said. “I honestly thought this was going to take us hours and hours and hours.”

The issues that bring Lubbockites out

Public hearings aren’t the only comparison. According to South Plains College Government Professor Drew Landry, many parts of this year’s effort echo 2021, including questions related to authority and enforcement on an issue that, at that time, wasn't settled law either.

“In order to talk about this initiative, you have to talk about another initiative that happened just about two or three years ago. And that was the Sanctuary City for the Unborn,” Landry said. “Oddly enough, you heard the same arguments just a few years ago about the exact same thing on the whole sanctuary city of the unborn thing, you had those against it saying this is a legislative thing.”

A "vote for life" sign on Trinity Church after Lubbockites voted to become a "sanctuary city for the unborn" in 2021.
Sarah Self-Walbrick
/
Texas Tech Public Media
A "vote for life" sign on Trinity Church after Lubbockites voted to become a "sanctuary city for the unborn" in 2021.

Landry described the methods used by those working to pass the Sanctuary City for the Unborn ordinance and those behind the marijuana ordinance as elements of direct democracy intended to give citizens the ability to make changes immediately.

For Lubbock, the charter’s direction states these kinds of initiatives require a petition of signatures totaling at least 25% of the number of people who voted at the last regular municipal election.

“Those organizers followed the city charter to a tee and went through the process and brought the initiative or the ordinance to the city council at that time, to say that Lubbock needs to be a Sanctuary City for the Unborn,” Landry said. “These citizens now followed that blueprint and said, ‘Let's put decriminalization of a certain amount of marijuana on this particular ordinance and bring it to the city council.’”

While city officials are expecting input from the state concerning the enforcement of marijuana laws, Landry said the attorney general’s opinion wouldn’t be as influential, and wouldn’t change how Texans feel about the state’s current laws.

“The legal weight of the attorney general's opinion in and of itself is about as much as, I don't know, the air in the room. It's not law-binding. It does help your argument, but that's about as far as it goes,” Landry said. “If a city official, if a state official, anybody who was against this particular ordinance on the issue of marijuana, wanted to get the attorney general's opinion, they could say, ‘well, he's our lawyer. He says we can't pass this, this is over, we can't enforce what you're doing.’ That would probably kill the enforcement of it, but I don't think it would stop the movement.”

Landry pointed out that abortion and marijuana played significant roles side by side in another state’s most recent election in November.

“Those two particular issues were brought to the whole state of Ohio, by voters, by citizens, and it was a pretty wide margin,” Landry said. “The voters of Ohio voted to approve a constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights and guaranteeing the legalization of marijuana.”

Lubbock’s elections have historically had low voter turnout unless there were specific issues on the ballot driving people to the polls. One such election was 2009’s vote to allow packaged alcohol sales inside city limits.

“When you look back at that particular election, you had a really strange alliance between the church group and all those alcohol businesses on the old strip,” Landry said. “When we say politics makes strange bedfellows, this is what we're talking about here. I mean, you get a really weird alliance. And it wasn't even close.”

Lubbock saw 50,877 voters in May 2009 for the alcohol vote, and 34,352 voters for 2021’s sanctuary city for the unborn vote; significantly higher than normal city elections. Landry believes this May will see a high turnout too.

“Regardless of how one feels about the issue of marijuana and its either decriminalization or legalization, I think there are going to be a large number of people who show up for this,” Landry said.

At least one person is staking his path forward on that possibility.

A day before the City Council unanimously voted to approve a special election for the marijuana ordinance, Adam Hernandez announced his candidacy for Lubbock’s mayoral race on the same ballot.

Hernandez previously ran for mayor against Tray Payne in 2022, an election that drew more than 19,500 Lubbockites to the polls. That election turnout also determined the number of signatures needed for Freedom Act Lubbock’s petition. Hernandez acknowledged while there are plenty of unknowns with this upcoming election, he believes a single issue on the ballot could make a difference, in his own campaign as well.

A day before the City Council unanimously voted to approve a special election for the marijuana ordinance, Adam Hernandez announced his candidacy for Lubbock’s mayoral race on the same ballot.
Brad Burt
/
Texas Tech Public Media
A day before the City Council unanimously voted to approve a special election for the marijuana ordinance, Adam Hernandez announced his candidacy for Lubbock’s mayoral race on the same ballot.

“The number of signatures on the petition doesn't even reflect the amount of people who told us, ‘I support this, I just can't sign the petition. I'm gonna vote for it,’ so you know, there's some untold number there that will head to the polls for that issue,” Hernandez said. “And then it's just up to me to really try to get my message across to the community and meet as many people as I can to hopefully increase my chances.”

Whatever the total voter turnout numbers will be, Payne said he doesn’t believe this ordinance will pass. Still, city officials will be looking to the attorney general’s office and state legislature for direction.

“I don't see the people of Lubbock coming out in support, in favor of this. I think it'll be an interesting vote. And it will certainly tell us a lot about public policy here in the City of Lubbock. But if you read the ordinance, it's mostly a policy question, do we or do we not want this in our community? And I think that's the question that's being asked throughout the state of Texas in a lot of cities.”

The day after the city council approved the special election, Payne announced he would not be seeking a second term as mayor in that election on May 4, 2024.

This week, longtime Lubbock business owner and member of city council since 2016, District 4 representative Steve Massengale announced on social media he will also be running in the 2024 mayor’s race.

Local candidates can still file for a place on that ballot until February 16.

The last day for citizens to register to vote in that election is April 4. Early voting will take place April 22 through April 30.

A copy of Freedom Act Lubbock’s proposed ordinance from the petition can be found here.

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Brad Burt is a reporter for KTTZ, born and raised in Lubbock. He has made a point to focus on in-depth local coverage, including civic and accountability reporting. Brad's professional interest in local journalism started on set as a member of the technical production team at KCBD Newschannel 11 before becoming a digital and investigative producer.