The city of Wichita is raising legal questions over the wording of a petition to decriminalize marijuana possession, a move petition organizers say might be an attempt to squelch their initiative after they’ve collected thousands of signatures to put it to a vote.
Backers of the petition drive told the City Council on Tuesday that they have now collected 5,500 signatures to put the measure on the November ballot.
They need 2,928 signatures of registered city voters to force a vote.
However, City Manager Robert Layton met the organizers in the hallway shortly after they spoke to the council and told them the city Law Department may have issues with the wording of the petition.
Petition organizer Esau Freeman told Layton that he thinks the city is trying to “squeak out” of having to put the marijuana initiative on the ballot.
Layton denied that’s the intent and urged the petition backers to meet with an assistant city attorney to try to resolve the situation.
Neither Layton nor City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf would elaborate after Tuesday’s council meeting.
Freeman and fellow petition organizer Janice Bradley, who spoke to the council Tuesday, said they will fight to keep their petition.
They say it was reviewed by their own attorneys and approved in form by the Sedgwick County Counsel’s Office before they began circulating it.
A change in wording now could force the petition organizers to start over, essentially negating months of volunteer work, Freeman said.
Bradley said they tried to make the proposal as clear and plainly worded as they could, unlike city ballot questions that have been loaded with legal terminology.
Freeman said he’s sure the wording will stand up to legal scrutiny.
If the city tries to rule it doesn’t, “we’ve got 5,500 people we’ll ask to come down to City Hall.”
The actual wording of the proposed ballot question is:
“BE IT ORDAINED that in Wichita, Kansas, the municipal code shall be amended to remove all criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis/marijuana for adult personal or medical use and possession of paraphernalia; and that a maximum civil fine of $25.00 shall be implemented for possession of cannabis/marijuana and possession of paraphernalia for adults.”
That means the initiative would change possession of marijuana or related paraphernalia from a criminal offense to a civil matter like a building code violation.
The $25 fine would be a substantial reduction from the current maximum penalty of $2,500 and a year in jail for first-time marijuana offenses.
While organizers acknowledge jail time is rarely given in simple possession cases, Bradley said the threat is “used as a club” to pressure defendants to plead guilty, pay a fine and attend drug treatment.
That, they say, creates thousands of criminal records on the books that can close off the individuals’ opportunities for jobs and education.
Bradley urged the council to “stop the gateway to the criminal justice system which continuously revolves” because of marijuana law.
The initiative would not override state laws against marijuana.
But organizers say it would send a powerful message to the Legislature if the state’s largest city votes in favor of decriminalization.
They also say if the city decriminalizes marijuana, local police will probably decide it’s not worth the effort to arrest small-time users.
The initiative drive is supported by the Peace and Social Justice Center, Kansas for Change and the Community Voice, a newspaper focused on Wichita’s black community.
Bradley said petition signers range from a 91-year-old grandmother who remembers the end of Prohibition to parents considering moving to Colorado, where marijuana is legal, so they can use it to treat their child’s seizure disorder.
She said even some police officers have privately expressed support for decriminalization.
“The Wichita Police Department has much more serious issues to deal with,” she told the council.