United States of Marijuana: the country’s evolving laws on cannabis
While states across the country move toward decriminalizing marijuana, Wyandotte County persists with fines and penalties for misdemeanor pot possession that are unnecessarily punitive. Currently, anyone apprehended with less than 32 grams of marijuana faces up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas need look no further than nearby cities that already have taken sensible steps to rewrite outdated marijuana laws and ensure that low-level, nonviolent offenses don’t derail people’s lives. On this issue, The Unified Government should follow the lead of Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.
Earlier this year, Lawrence reduced penalties for marijuana possession to a $1 fine plus court costs for first- and second-time offenders. Previously, fines ranged between $200 and $2,500. Subsequent citations result in more severe consequences. State law mandates felony charges for a third offense.
The Lawrence ordinance applies to people 18 or older in possession of 32 grams or less of pot. The requirement for a costly drug abuse evaluation was also eliminated for first-time offenders. A judge has discretion to order an evaluation after the second offense.
While Kansas lawmakers have been reticent to reform marijuana laws, elected officials in Lawrence made prudent changes to local ordinances.
In 2017, Kansas City, Missouri, voters approved lowering the penalty for marijuana possession under 35 grams to a $25 fine and no jail time. Under the old ordinance, a $500 fine and a sentence of 180 days were possible.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced last year that her office would no longer prosecute most marijuana possession cases.
The Unified Government’s Board of Commissioners should consider a similar approach and comparable penalties.
“Those places had the right idea,” said Chris Morrow, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
District 1 At-Large Commissioner Melissa Bynum said she is open to reducing penalties but needs to do more research before weighing in on this question. District 5 Commissioner Mike Kane said he didn’t want to comment until after seeing Morrow’s presentation.
The Kansas City, Kansas Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 is remaining neutral on the issue.
Kansas City, Kansas Police Officer Tom Tomasic said officers generally issue citations for misdemeanor possession. But the possibility of jail time and a steep fine remains on the books.
The drug is legal in some form in 33 states, including neighboring Colorado and Missouri. But possessing any amount of pot is still illegal in Kansas.
Marijuana possession shouldn’t be criminalized at all, said Kansas state Sen. David Haley. The Wyandotte County Democrat supports legalizing medical marijuana statewide. Revamped city ordinances are a starting point for reform, Haley said, not the end game.
Minorities are disproportionally affected by marijuana-related arrests in Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, he said. The population in Wyandotte County as of July 2018 was 40% non-Hispanic whites, 29% Hispanic and 23% African-American, according to the United States Census Bureau.
“Getting a (citation) or paying a fine is still some sort of crime,” Haley said. “This is a Band-Aid, and it doesn’t address what the true cure is. It’s just covering up a wound. But I will take the Band-Aid until we find a cure.”
In a state where legislators are in no hurry to address this issue, reducing fines and eliminating jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana is a much-needed first step toward reform.