Kansas City voters overwhelmingly supported reduced penalties for marijuana possession in Tuesday’s election, and the new city law has already taken effect.
The Kansas City Municipal Court is well aware of the voter-approved change, but Municipal Court officials and others say there are important issues for residents to realize in this new legal climate.
Here are five key things to know about the new law:
1. This does NOT legalize marijuana possession. Voters approved a citizens petition initiative that reduces the maximum fine in city court from $500 to $25 and eliminates possible jail time as a penalty for possessing 35 grams or less of pot, about 1 1/4 ounce.
But pot possession is still illegal, and a guilty plea would involve a drug conviction. This is not like what Colorado and some other states have done to legalize marijuana possession.
2. The vote was Tuesday, and the law took effect Wednesday. It affects any Municipal Court case that was open or active at that time. It limits the maximum fine to $25 for a single count of simple pot possession, but court costs of $48.50 per count still apply.
City Councilwoman Alissia Canady, a former Jackson County assistant prosecutor, says people should realize this fine is only for cases that go to Municipal Court. The court usually averages about 20 such cases per month, according to Court Administrator Megan Pfannenstiel. Some marijuana possession cases still wind up in Jackson, Clay or Platte county circuit courts, depending on the circumstances. Higher penalties still apply in those state courts.
3. The prosecution of Municipal Court marijuana cases is not expected to change a great deal, according to City Prosecutor Linda Miller. Municipal Court prosecutors will continue to negotiate plea bargains with defense attorneys for marijuana possession.
But there’s an important “unintended consequence” that Canady and others fear. It will most likely fall on people who choose not to hire an attorney, or are unable to afford a lawyer, and opt instead to pay the $25 fine plus court costs. Incarceration is no longer a potential punishment. So indigent defendants will no longer be entitled to free legal counsel. The city prosecutors and judges can’t give them legal advice, either.
Defendants may choose to just plead guilty and pay the fine. They should realize this will mean a drug conviction on their record, which could seriously impact future educational or employment opportunities.
4. In the past, Municipal Court judges have appointed attorneys from Legal Aid of Western Missouri to represent indigent defendants who faced the possibility of jail time for a marijuana offense. But now that jail time is off the table, court observers say it’s unlikely the judges will appoint Legal Aid to represent those defendants.
It’s not that Legal Aid isn’t willing to represent those clients, but the judges are unlikely to appoint them. So defendants who can’t afford an attorney most likely won’t get Legal Aid help.
Jamie Kacz, executive director of the Kansas City Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said her organization is trying to create a network of attorneys willing to take some of these cases for a reduced legal fee. She said more information on that should be on their website, normlkc.org, in another week or so. But others fear that’s not really a practical solution.
5. Efforts to continue to reform Missouri’s marijuana laws continue, but the next big vote likely won’t come until late next year. Kacz said NORML KC is working with New Approach Missouri, a group supporting medical cannabis, to try to legalize medical marijuana statewide. They are trying to gather 170,000 petition signatures for a statewide ballot measure in November 2018.