Guest Commentary

John Sharp: Kansas City marijuana measure would bring unintended consequences

If Question 5 passes, a conviction for marijuana possession could severely damage one’s job and career prospects for years, writes former Kansas City councilman John Sharp.
If Question 5 passes, a conviction for marijuana possession could severely damage one’s job and career prospects for years, writes former Kansas City councilman John Sharp. AP

Many people and even some organizations supporting Kansas City Question 5, placed on the Tuesday ballot by petition, think it decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.

It doesn’t. It just lessens the possible penalties.

But it comes with its own penalties — unintended consequences that will harm the very people its well-meaning but ill-advised proponents are trying to help.

Passage of Question 5 will eliminate jail as a potential punishment in Municipal Court for possession or control of marijuana, lower the maximum fine for possession or control of 35 grams or less of marijuana to $25, and remove marijuana from the city’s prohibition against drug paraphernalia.

On April 4, Kansas City voters could reduce penalties for marijuana possession to a $25 fine. What are the pros and cons?

By eliminating the possibility of jail as a punishment, indigent defendants in Municipal Court will no longer be entitled to free legal representation from Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

Faced with trying to scrape up several hundred dollars to hire a defense attorney, plus charges for participating in drug education and drug testing that generally are required to avoid a drug conviction, many indigent defendants, who are mostly young people, will just plead guilty, pay the $25 fine and court costs and think they got off lucky.

Far from it.

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Their records will still show a conviction for marijuana possession, something that will severely damage their job and career prospects for years at the very least. Those convicted will be wasting their time applying for government or private-sector jobs requiring a security clearance or for numerous other jobs that require a clean background check.

Even if employers are willing to give applicants a second chance, which too few are, an equally qualified applicant with a clean background check is highly likely to be preferred over an applicant with a drug conviction.

While a state law that becomes effective in 2018 allows people to apply to have Municipal Court convictions expunged from their records after three years, it still requires disclosure of the convictions for numerous jobs and professions.

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Under current procedures, defendants charged with marijuana possession who are represented by legal counsel can seek entry into a pretrial diversion program administered by the city prosecutor’s office, which generally requires participation in drug education and drug monitoring for a year. Upon successful completion of the program, the charge is dismissed with no record.

Other options for defendants with legal representation include entering into plea agreements to reduce the charge to littering or requesting suspended imposition of a sentence, under which a defendant pleads guilty and is placed on probation for a year by the judge but can have the charge dismissed with no record after successfully completing probation and the drug education and monitoring required. However, the conviction is still on the defendant’s record until the charge is dismissed.

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Any of these options are far preferable to having a young person’s job and career goals hampered for years by a drug conviction that could have been avoided. But none of them is available to defendants without legal representation.

Plus, the main problem this proposition purports to solve — sentencing people in Municipal Court to jail terms for possession of small amounts of marijuana — simply doesn’t occur and hasn’t occurred for decades, according to Lowell Gard, who is retiring as city prosecutor after 35 years of service.

Gard told a March 13 meeting of the South Kansas City Alliance that during his 35 years of service, he can’t remember ever trying to put anyone in jail for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

This is a solution in search of a problem, but a solution with very bad consequences for many young people who won’t understand how badly they will be burdened by a drug conviction, no matter how low the fine is.

John A. Sharp is a former Kansas City councilman who served as chairman of the council’s Public Safety and Emergency Services Committee.

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