Is marijuana legal or illegal? As KC considers loosening pot laws, confusion reigns

Kansas City’s tangled relationship with marijuana laws may grow more complicated this week.

On Wednesday, a City Council committee may discuss a proposal from Councilman Brandon Ellington that would decriminalize, for city purposes, possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana. That’s about 3½ ounces.

Kansas City’s existing ordinance, put in place by voters and initiative petition, sets the penalty at $25 for up to 35 grams of pot. After that, it’s a possible $500 fine.

We did not support that measure. But the decision by Missouri voters to legalize medicinal marijuana — and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s later determination to decline most marijuana cases — have convinced us that attitudes about recreational pot are changing.

During his campaign, Mayor Quinton Lucas promised to pardon city marijuana offenders. He won in a landslide. That sends a message.

Ellington’s ordinance would not change state law. Baker wants to retain the ability to prosecute marijuana cases that can be linked to violent crimes, and Ellington’s proposal would not affect that.

Legalizing minor marijuana possession might free up Kansas City police officers for more important tasks. And it would keep low-level possession cases out of court — and off the criminal records of casual users.

For those reasons, the City Council should approve the ordinance, and the mayor should sign it.

But Kansas Citians and others in the region should take careful notice of the conflicting approaches to marijuana in different cities and counties. It’s a patchwork quilt of rules and laws that needs to be fixed.

If Ellington’s plan passes, possessing 100 grams of pot might not be a crime under Kansas City’s ordinance. But it’s still a felony under state law, with fines and jail time. While the Jackson County prosecutor may decline to pursue those cases, the Platte and Clay County prosecutors could send you to prison for smoking marijuana, even within Kansas City’s city limits.

Unless, of course, it’s medical marijuana, which is legal in Missouri.

In Kansas, using marijuana for any reason is still illegal. Simple possession of marijuana remains a federal crime.

Confusing, contradictory marijuana statutes hurt those who want to follow the law, of course. But they also undercut confidence in our government: Is pot a good thing, or a bad thing? No one can say for sure. It depends on where you’re standing. Literally.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has shown some flexibility on pot cases, unlike his predecessor. But it’s clear Congress should either standardize the nation’s marijuana laws, or at least officially allow states to legalize marijuana without potential federal interference.

The public seems ready to accept the recreational use of cannabis, as it does alcohol. But the nation’s laws remain far behind that curve, Ellington’s proposal notwithstanding.

Clearing up that confusion should be a top priority for policymakers.