United States of Marijuana: the country’s evolving laws on cannabis
Last week, Lucas, who holds the 3rd District at-large seat on the City Council, decisively defeated fellow council member Jolie Justus in the race to replace Mayor Sly James. He campaigned on a commonsense criminal justice reform platform, among other issues.
Lucas pledged to use the pardon power of the mayor’s office to wipe out all stand-alone convictions for minor municipal marijuana violations.
“It’s a question of fairness,” Lucas told The Star.
He’s right. And Lucas should make good on this promise.
Thousands of marijuana-related convictions in Kansas City Municipal Court could be dismissed, depending on how far back the pardons reach. Close to 8,900 marijuana-related cases have been disposed at the municipal level since 1998. Some are stand-alone. Others are not.
As of last week, there were 2,736 pending marijuana cases.
While some voters might be surprised to learn that Kansas City’s mayor can issue pardons, Lucas, who takes office Aug. 1, will indeed have that power. As the city charter states, “The mayor shall have authority to pardon any person convicted of violating any ordinance of this city.”
Although recreational marijuana use is not legal in Missouri, voters have sent a strong message that attitudes about pot have changed. And there is little political will to use scarce law enforcement resources to prosecute nonviolent marijuana cases.
In 2017, Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved a new ordinance that lowered penalties in city court for people caught with small amounts of marijuana. Violators are ticketed and pay nominal fines and court costs without the threat of jail time.
As a result, there have been fewer cases filed in Municipal Court, and more people have been convicted on amended charges instead of marijuana charges.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced in November that her office would no longer prosecute most marijuana possession cases. And last year, Missouri voters also approved the use of medical marijuana for certain health issues.
The changes enacted in the last couple years have been needed steps toward reforming the criminal justice system. But what about people arrested on low-level marijuana charges in Kansas City prior to 2017? The arrests and convictions can stay on their records for years and impact their prospects for jobs, loans and housing.
“It’s a no-brainer issue,” Lucas said. “It’s only fair to eliminate those barriers.”
So, what does reform look like? Lucas is researching what other cities have done, but there are templates that could provide guidance. It will take time and personnel, but it will get done, Lucas said. He wants to limit the administrative work and the costs associated with expungement as much as possible.
In San Francisco, 9,362 people will be eligible to have their old marijuana-related criminal offenses dismissed and sealed under a plan announced by the city’s district attorney. Denver’s Turn Over a New Leaf program doesn’t require applicants to pay for any part of the dismissal or sealing process. In Seattle, judges vacated more than 500 marijuana possession convictions last September, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to pardon those with misdemeanor marijuana convictions could clear thousands more.
A spokeswoman for Kansas City Municipal Court declined to comment on whether Presiding Judge Corey Carter or Presiding Judge Pro Tem Ardie Bland would be opposed to dismissing past convictions. “It is not the place of the judiciary to comment on the actions that may be taken by the Mayor, Prosecutor’s Office and/or police,” she wrote in an email.
In Kansas City and across the country, the criminalization of marijuana has taken a heavy toll, particularly on minorities. Lucas has an important opportunity to undo some of the damage done by the “war on drugs” and allow low-level offenders to make a fresh start.
Dismissing nonviolent marijuana convictions is one small but consequential step toward reforming the criminal justice system at the local level.