When a new law eliminating jail time for marijuana possession in Kansas City went to a vote last year, some city leaders warned of unintended consequences.
With jail time off the table, it was said, defendants would no longer be eligible for a defense attorney from Legal Aid of Western Missouri. In that way, the measure could have hurt the people it was supposed to help.
But that potential problem proved easy to solve.
Soon after the measure passed, a new contract with Legal Aid specified legal defense will be provided to people charged with marijuana possession, as it had been before. Those lawyers can help defendants obtain a diversion agreement, negotiate a plea bargain or beat the case, potentially keeping a drug conviction off of their record.
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For Jamie Kacz, who helped lead the effort for lower marijuana penalties as executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the solution came as a relief.
“Revising that contract with Legal Aid was the main concern that kept getting brought up,” Kacz said. “So when that happened, it worked out really well. Which is wonderful. It’s good.”
Kansas City voters overwhelmingly supported the lower penalties, passing the measure in a city election April 4 with more than 70 percent of the vote.
The new law did not legalize marijuana, but it lowered the fine for possession to $25 from $500 and eliminated jail time as a penalty. Under the old ordinance, a sentence of 180 days was possible, though rarely handed down.
The change applied only to cases in Kansas City Municipal Court in which defendants possessed 35 grams or less or marijuana — about 1 1/4 ounces. State courts still hold tougher penalties for marijuana possession. On the federal level, Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled a potentially more aggressive stance in states that have legalized marijuana, but Missouri is not among them.
In Kansas City, the issue of lower penalties landed on the ballot through a petition drive led by NORML KC. The local push mirrored others across the country, driven in part by the desire to reduce harmful impacts of law enforcement that fall disproportionately on low-income and minority residents.
In Kansas City, an analysis of city court data ahead of the election showed that 70 percent of marijuana possession defendants were black in a city that is about 30 percent black, even though studies show both white people and black people use the drug at about the same rate.
Ahead of the election in Kansas City, the issue of city court defendants losing access to legal defense had been the biggest sticking point raised by critics, including Kansas City council member Alissia Canady and then-city prosecutor Lowell Gard. Even with lower penalties, they noted, a conviction for marijuana possession would not look good on a person’s record.
The fear, critics said, was that defendants who couldn’t afford their own attorney would be denied help from Legal Aid essentially on a technicality.
But that technicality was eliminated with the inclusion of a few lines in the city’s new contract with Legal Aid.
The contract was officially signed in September, but Legal Aid had already agreed to continue representing those defendants in the meantime, said Wayne Smith, a Legal Aid attorney who handles marijuana cases. So far, Smith, said, it has not been a problem.
In 2018, Missouri NORML chapters plan to pursue a state ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana.