Despite grave reservations, members of the Kansas City Council’s public safety committee recommended Wednesday that a petition to reduce pot possession fines go on the April ballot.
The full council votes on the proposed ballot language Thursday, the deadline to approve measures for the April election.
Committee members emphasized they were not endorsing the marijuana proposal and said they had huge concerns about it. But they are obligated to put it on an election ballot, because decriminalization advocates gathered enough petition signatures under the city charter.
“The council doesn’t have a choice,” said Councilwoman Katheryn Shields.
The petition initiative drive was led by the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. It asks Kansas City voters to reduce the maximum pot possession fine in Municipal Court from $500 to $25 for possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana. It also eliminates jail as a potential Municipal Court punishment for simple possession. It would not affect other offenses, such as driving while under the influence of a controlled substance.
Supporters who gathered petition signatures for that ballot measure say it would keep people out of jail and reduce adverse law enforcement impacts, especially on low-income and minority residents who are disproportionately affected by arrests and charges.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jamie Kacz, executive director of NORML KC.
Kacz told the committee that both Columbia and St. Louis have already taken this step toward reduced fines and penalties for marijuana possession.
But committee chairwoman Alissia Canady, a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor, worried about major unintended consequences, potentially making things worse, not better, for people caught with pot.
She pointed out that without the possibility of jail time, offenders won’t qualify for Legal Aid. So she predicted that offenders who can’t afford an attorney would likely plead guilty, thinking it would only mean a $25 fine. Instead, she said, it would mean a drug conviction on their permanent record, affecting everything from scholarships and educational opportunities to jobs.
“It’s creating an additional burden on those they are trying to help,” Canady said, adding that this could have a profoundly negative impact on the urban core. She said the only way to achieve real reform that helps low-level offenders is through state law changes.
Shields warned that anyone caught with close to 35 grams of marijuana would likely still wind up in state court, where the potential penalties remain severe.
After the committee meeting, Canady urged Kacz and others to put off their ballot measure until August and have more conversations with the City Council about possible unintended consequences.
Kacz said her group still wants the April ballot but is willing to work with the City Council for the benefit of the community.