Kansas City voters will be asked Tuesday to reduce the penalties for minor marijuana possession in the city.
The proposal — Question 5 on the ballot — is fraught with potential complications and unintended consequences. Voters should reject it.
The plan came to the ballot through an initiative petition. It would limit fines in Municipal Court to no more than $25 for possession of 35 grams of marijuana or less — about an ounce and a quarter.
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The proposal would prohibit a city jail sentence for marijuana possession and remove marijuana from the prohibited list of drug paraphernalia. The current ordinance allows a $500 fine and up to 180 days in jail.
Kansas Citians considering Question 5 might conclude it decriminalizes pot. It does not. Marijuana possession would remain an ordinance violation even if the proposal passes.
That means anyone ticketed for marijuana could still have the citation on his or her record, even after paying a reduced fine. A record of marijuana use can cause enormous problems on job applications. Some believe a drug offense could be a stumbling block when seeking loans and loan guarantees for post-secondary education.
That isn’t worth the risk.
Additionally, the lack of jail time means that violators won’t be eligible for defense attorneys from Legal Aid of Western Missouri. That would reduce the workload on beleaguered public defenders but would further jeopardize the future prospects of marijuana users.
And remember: Marijuana possession and use would remain state crimes and still would be a violation of federal law. Approving Question 5 might lure casual users into a false sense of security, with disastrous consequences if state police or federal law enforcement steps in.
It also could lead to disparate treatment of suspects — a police officer north of the river might refer a case to state prosecutors, who might want to punish drug use more aggressively than a municipal court prosecutor or judge south of the river. It would be unfair for some Kansas Citians to face steeper penalties than others for the same offense.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that there are many “mights” and “maybes” in our analysis of Question 5. That’s our biggest problem with the proposal: There are too many unanswered questions and unanticipated repercussions in what is really just a baby step toward full legalization of the drug.
That small step might be worth the risk if there were evidence of mass incarceration of low-level marijuana users. There is not. Prosecutors are not filling the jails and prisons with people who smoke pot.
Petitioners argue that police use marijuana charges as add-ons to other offenses in an effort to punish users, particularly those in the minority community. We share that concern. Punishment for minor marijuana use should be proportionate to the crime.
But we think the petition committee is really interested in fully legalizing marijuana. That’s a complex question that should be debated at state and federal levels, not addressed in local ordinances that only nibble around the edges.
Question 5 is a half-solution in search of a half-problem. We recommend a “no” vote at the polls Tuesday.