Dallas Could Be the Next Locality to Decriminalize Marijuana

By Tierra Bradford and Tamara Faye

Dallas, Texas could be the next locality to decriminalize marijuana in the United States — and it’s all thanks to the efforts of local organizers in Texas who are ready to tackle the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is a flawed effort that seeks to address drug use through punitive measures like mandatory minimum sentences and patrolling communities that police have deemed to be “high crime areas.” This war has cost our country trillions of dollars and devastated numerous Black and Brown communities nationwide. But for more than a decade, states and localities have been working to legalize and decriminalize marijuana use in their jurisdictions. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. And soon, Dallas may be added to that list.

Dallas Action and Ground Game Texas are leading the charge by launching a petition campaign to amend the city charter to decriminalize possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana in Dallas. The petition needs 20,000 signatures from registered Dallas voters, but the campaign goal is to reach 35,000 signatures. In addition to decriminalizing the misdemeanor amount of marijuana (about 2-4 ounces), the amendment would 1) prevent the city from paying for THC concentration tests, 2) eliminate smell as a probable cause to search someone or their vehicle, and 3) require the police to report to the city council and Community Police Oversight Board quarterly about the misdemeanor marijuana arrests and citations issued, along with demographic data on these arrests. This petition comes on the heels of a three-year effort examining police data on racially disparate misdemeanor arrests by the Dallas Police Department.

In 2021, The Leadership Conference and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, in partnership with the City of Dallas Office of Community Police Oversight (OCPO), released a report highlighting the high amount of low-level marijuana arrests and the disproportionate enforcement of misdemeanor offenses on Black and Brown residents. From July 2017 to June 2020, 85 percent of the low-level drug arrests were for the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. In a city where Black people make up 24.3 percent of the population, Black people made up 56.6 percent of arrests for 2 ounces of marijuana. These numbers indicated to advocates that it was past time for the city to review their practices around marijuana arrests.

After the release of the report, and based on the report’s recommendation, the Dallas Police Department introduced a change to their internal General Orders, 313.05, which directed DPD not to arrest or cite an individual with possession of marijuana indicative of personal use (2 ounces or less). In 2023, The Leadership Conference Education Fund partnered with Dallas Action and other engaged advocates to review arrest data from 2018 through 2022 and provide an analysis of the impact of DPD’s instituted general order. We found that while overall arrests and misdemeanor arrests by the DPD continued to decrease, and arrests for possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana significantly decreased, overall racial disparities persisted in low-level misdemeanor arrests. The racial disparities were particularly stark in marijuana possession and criminal trespass arrests.

Police enforcing marijuana prohibition laws across the country disproportionately target Black people, despite similar usage rates among all groups of people. Black people in the United States are still nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana compared to White people, even though self-reports suggest similar rates of usage. The people of Dallas and folks across the country should not be subject to racially disparate police practices, especially for violations that have no real impact on public safety.

Three of the recommendations from the report were for DPD to expand the marijuana possession de-enforcement policy from 2 to 4 ounces to align with the Dallas district attorney policy and for the Dallas City Council to operate within the bounds of their legal authority and codify DPD’s marijuana possession policy — making it an ordinance not subject to change by leadership transitions within DPD. However, Dallas Action and Ground Game’s effort to amend the charter would ensure that the people of Dallas have a say in whether marijuana should be criminalized in their city. If amended, only the voters can change the amendment to recriminalize marijuana.

Many of the city’s Black and Brown residents feel that Dallas hasn’t done enough to reconcile with its racist past. The effort to decriminalize marijuana is just one opportunity for the city to acknowledge the struggles of Black and Brown residents in Dallas. Additionally, this effort is an opportunity to increase voter turnout in Dallas — where there are 1.3 million voters, but where only 5-8 percent of voters turn out in primary elections. Dallas Action and Ground Game Texas are ready for the challenge, with Dallas Action making changes in their community since 2014 and Ground Game Texas bringing their organizing efforts to Dallas — one of the largest jurisdictions where they’ve organized to decriminalize marijuana. They have the support of a coalition of 25-30 grassroot organizations, the Texas Cannabis Collective, the Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Kardal Coleman, and Justice of the Peace Adam Schwartz.

The Dallas City charter is only updated every 10 years, with voters voting on proposed amendments that determine new rules about how the city will operate. If the proposed amendment is not updated this election year, it will be 10 more years until the next opportunity will arise to decriminalize marijuana via the charter. If Dallas voters want to decriminalize marijuana in this decade, they need to sign the petition to get the amendment on the ballot and then vote in favor of the amendment this November. And if successful, Dallas will be a regional and national leader on marijuana decriminalization.

For eligible Dallas voters, you can learn more about the petition and print it for signature here.

Tierra Bradford is the senior program manager, justice, at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Tamara Faye is the Dallas Freedom Act Coordinator at #DecrimDallas.