TOPEKA – Kansas’ attorney general asked the state’s top court Thursday to nullify a new voter-approved ordinance in the state’s largest city that lessens criminal penalties for marijuana possession because it conflicts with state law.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s filing with the Kansas Supreme Court came a day after the city of Wichita filed its own lawsuit with a lower court, also seeking a ruling on the ordinance’s validity. Local voters approved the measure Tuesday, with 54 percent in favor.
Schmidt said he asked the Supreme Court to rule – after putting the case filed by the city in Sedgwick County District Court on hold – so that the ordinance’s validity can be settled quickly.
“The longer this ordinance stands alongside state law without a determination of its validity, the more confusion there will be for Wichita authorities, state authorities, criminal defendants, and law enforcement officials,” Schmidt said. “Starting in the district court will only prolong the uncertainty through an almost-certain appeal.”
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The ordinance imposes a fine of no more than $50 for someone 21 or older convicted for the first time of possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana – enough for several dozen joints – or related drug paraphernalia. State law punishes the same crimes with up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
Schmidt warned city officials last month that the ordinance conflicted with state law and said it couldn’t be enforced.
Opponents of the measure saw Schmidt’s comments as a promise to challenge it in court.
Esau Freeman, an organizer of the campaign for the ballot initiative, called the attorney general’s action “just a power play.”
“They’re politically scared,” he said. “If they were really doing the will of the people, they’d have a statewide vote on this.”
Spokesman Ken Evans said the city respects the attorney general’s opinion about the ordinance. But he also said the City Council put the measure on the ballot because it respects the right of residents to seek a public vote, noting backers gathered the 3,000 signatures necessary to call one.
As for the attorney general’s filing, Evans said, “We’re looking for the same thing.”
“Hopefully, from this we'll get a ruling from a court that will give the city direction,” Evans said.
In 2006, Lawrence decided that first-time marijuana offenders would be tried in municipal court so they’d avoid a state conviction on their records.
But its ordinance also imposed a minimum fine of $200 and required a drug abuse evaluation.
Lawrence is home to the University of Kansas and is among the state’s most liberal communities.
Wichita, with about 387,000 residents, contains strongly Republican areas that elect some of the state Legislature’s most conservative members who opposed the marijuana ordinance.