A petition initiative to reduce marijuana possession fines in Kansas City is legal and can go on an election ballot, according to the city attorney’s office.
But a Kansas City Council committee postponed a decision Wednesday on the measure, and the council must act by next week to meet the deadline for the April ballot.
If the council fails to act by next week, the next available election would be August.
The proposal would ask Kansas City voters to reduce the maximum pot possession fine from $500 to $25 for possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana. It would also eliminate jail as a potential punishment for simple possession. It would not affect other offenses such as driving while under the influence of a controlled substance.
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Supporters who gathered petition signatures for that ballot measure say it would keep people out of jail and reduce adverse law enforcement impacts, especially on low-income and minority residents who are disproportionately affected by arrests and charges.
“This is something that the citizens of Kansas City want,” said Jamie Kacz, executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We heard the outcry of our citizens.”
The organization gathered sufficient signatures, and the city attorney’s office told the council’s public safety committee on Wednesday that it is not pre-empted by Missouri law. The measure does not make pot possession legal but addresses the fine and penalties, which City Prosecutor Lowell Gard said would not conflict with Missouri law.
Kacz told the committee that both Columbia and St. Louis have already taken this step toward reduced fines and penalties for marijuana possession. She said her group would like to put the Kansas City measure before local voters on the April 4 ballot.
She said this is a great start for Kansas City to make toward reforming marijuana laws, although it doesn’t go nearly as far as some other cities and states have gone.
On Election Day 2016, eight states voted to legalize recreational or medical marijuana, bringing the nationwide total of medical states to 29, according to Politico. Added up, Politico said, 65 million people now live in states that authorize adult recreational use, and more than half of all Americans have access to medical marijuana.
Missouri took a small step Jan. 1 when a new law eliminated the possibility of jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana.
Kacz said her group used the 35-gram level in crafting its petition, because amounts above 35 grams can be classified as a felony.
But committee chairwoman Alissia Canady, a former assistant Jackson County prosecuting attorney, pointed out that 35 grams is not an insignificant amount. As Police Deputy Chief Karl Oakman held up a large baggie to illustrate a 35-gram sample from police evidence, Canady observed, “That’s a lot of weed.”
Oakman agreed it was much more than a typical possession of two or three joints might be.
Kacz cited some national studies in saying that decriminalization does not lead to greater marijuana use and argued more harm comes from criminal prohibition of marijuana than from the use of marijuana itself.
But Gard responded that the city rarely imposes jail time anyway for simple marijuana possession. Gard was neutral and did not take a position, pro or con, on the ballot proposal. But he pointed out to the committee that having the potential for jail time is often the best way to compel offenders to seek diversion and treatment.
Some in the audience doubted that relaxing marijuana laws would be good for Kansas City. Joseph Jackson, a parent and neighborhood advocate, testified that marijuana and other drugs are rampant in urban core neighborhoods and hurt those communities. He argued that reducing the fine for possession to just $25 would not help.
Canady said she wanted to hear testimony next week from drug court or other officials on possible impacts of changing the marijuana law. The committee and full council would have to act on the measure by Jan. 19 to meet the deadline for the April 4 ballot. If council members take more time to deliberate, the measure could still go on the August ballot.