KC voters approve lower penalty for pot possession: $25 fine and no jail

Kansas City voters on Tuesday decided to lower penalties in city court for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, a measure to reduce fines and eliminate jail time for marijuana possession was winning 71 percent of the vote. The measure lowers the maximum fine for marijuana possession in city court to $25 from $500 and eliminates jail time as a penalty. Under the old ordinance, a sentence of 180 days was possible.

The change applies only to cases in Kansas City Municipal Court in which defendants possessed 35 grams or less of marijuana — about 1  1/4 ounces.

The issue landed on the ballot through a petition drive led by the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Jamie Kacz, executive director of NORML KC, said residents who signed the petitions sent a message that they don’t want people jailed or fined heavily for marijuana offenses.

On election night, Kacz and other proponents gathered for a watch party to see the results come in.

“It’s a very positive result because we know Kansas City is ready for this change,” Kacz said.

Kacz said she thought the city would find a way to solve a problem pointed out by opponents: that without jail on the table, defendants won’t get a defense attorney through Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

In the run-up to the election, some city officials warned that the city’s contract with Legal Aid says that only defendants facing possible jail time are entitled to an attorney, free of charge, if they can’t afford their own. In city court, defendants need an attorney to obtain a diversion agreement or to plea bargain a pot charge down to littering.

Kacz said her group is working on organizing a network of attorneys to help in those cases. She also suggested that the city could arrange for Legal Aid to represent the defendants anyway.

“It’s within the power of the city to do that,” Kacz said. “They should go ahead.”

Legal Aid represented defendants in about 59 percent of city court marijuana possession cases in the last fiscal year, according to a Star analysis of court data. Nearly 70 percent of the 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.

City Prosecutor Lowell Gard said defendants in city court were rarely actually jailed for marijuana possession. Most resolved their cases through a diversion program or a plea bargain.

Those fines and diversion programs typically cost about $300, plus as much as $150 for drug testing and drug education classes.

So for those who can’t afford a private attorney, pleading guilty to the possession charge and paying a $25 fine — plus nearly $50 in court costs — may be an attractive option.

But, Gard and City Council members warned, pleading guilty would still leave a mark on the defendant’s record, even if the ordinance violation isn’t technically a criminal matter.

City Councilwoman Alissia Canady, one of several local officials to express skepticism about the measure, said Kansas City residents should remember that marijuana is still illegal at the local, state and federal level.

Canady said the unintended consequences of the measure actually hurt those who were supposed to be helped: black men who make up a disproportionate number of the defendants, many of whom now may have to pay for their own attorney to avoid a drug conviction on their record.

“This does not solve anything,” Canady said. “It just creates more problems for people who don’t have any money and are already overburdened by the criminal justice system.”

Twenty-nine states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana either for recreational or medical use. Missouri made a small change this year when it eliminated jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana. Many cities, including St. Louis and Columbia, have taken steps toward reduced fines and penalties.

The ballot measure also eliminates city charges for possession of marijuana-related paraphernalia, which carried penalties of 15 days to six months in jail and fines from $100 to $500.