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Petition drive launched to decriminalize marijuana in Wichita

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 4:11 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, April 2, 2014, at 6:02 a.m.

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A statewide group has launched a petition drive to decriminalize marijuana in Wichita.

Officials with Kansas for Change told the Wichita City Council on Tuesday that they’ll be back – with at least 4,300 verified petition signatures. They seek to remove criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and cap fines at $25.

It would be up to the council to approve the proposal or to place it on a ballot for a public vote.

Even if the petition succeeds and Wichita voters agree, the county’s top law enforcement officer said state and federal laws against marijuana still take precedence.

“Even when you have these kind of legal corrections, they leave issues when they’re not attended to on the federal and state basis,” said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett. “It just becomes a question of who’s going to prosecute the charge. I’m never going to try to discourage anyone from getting involved in the system ... but if you truly want to change these laws, you need to start with the federal system on down.”

Esau Freeman and Janice Bradley with Kansas for Change told the council the time has come to reform the outdated marijuana laws, in Wichita and in Kansas.

“I will not end what I have to say with ‘April Fools,’ ” Freeman said. “We’d like to send a message to the Legislature and the people it’s time to move on this issue.”

Currently, 13 states have legislation pending to legalize medical marijuana. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Bradley said 57 percent to 61 percent of all drug arrests in Wichita are for possession of marijuana or paraphernalia, according to police statistics. She said 35 percent of the arrests for the two crimes involve black suspects, while only 11.5 percent of Wichita residents are black.

“I don’t know if it has to do with poverty, I don’t know if it has to do with the police officers in that area, or if there is some profiling going on. No matter whether you’re black or white, this is an issue long past its time to be rectified,” Freeman said after the meeting.

The petition drive has been a challenge so far, Freeman said.

“Many citizens are afraid to speak out,” he said. “We’ve had several people say they don’t want to sign the petition because ‘people will know who I am. The cops will come after me.’ ”

Similar drives are under way in Topeka, Wyandotte County, Emporia, Salina and Lawrence, he said.

“We say drugs are bad, but we don’t attack the drugs. We attack the people,” he said after the meeting. “If drugs are a public health problem, why in the world would you give a $2,500 fine or a year in prison? If you caught a cold or the flu, would you expect a ticket? The people who are out of control need help, but there are many people around the country who use marijuana like others use alcohol.”

Freeman called the prosecution and arrest of marijuana users a “cash cow” for district attorneys across the state.

“That’s why for some time we’ve been asking for a law so we can go ahead and tax this,” he said.

Bennett chuckled at the cash cow reference.

“To suggest the county is making money on marijuana cases is simply not supported by the facts,” he said.

Unless the accused is a repeat or large-scale offender, fines and lengthy jail sentences are rarely imposed in marijuana cases, Bennett said.

“We’ve filed a very small number of marijuana cases. The vast majority are handled by municipalities as misdemeanors,” he said.

While felony marijuana cases can carry a $250,000 fine, “in my 20 years I’ve never seen even a $100,000 fine imposed,” Bennett said. “And the same holds true on misdemeanors. The $2,500 fine is never imposed. There’s a minimum fine, probation and costs.”

The pro-marijuana group’s goal is any step away from the current criminal penalties for marijuana possession, Freeman said.

“What we need to look at is any form of legalization is legalization,” he said. “If you open it up medically, then what you have is a very controlled introduction into the state.

“If you do like Colorado did and you legalize it for everybody, you may have some problems. I haven’t seen any yet.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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