Petition to decriminalize marijuana in Wichita apparently fails

08/07/2014 7:52 PM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

Supporters of a petition to decriminalize marijuana apparently have come up just short of the signatures they need to force the city to put it to a vote.

Petition drive leader Esau Freeman said organizers got word late Thursday that the county election office has ruled they were about 180 valid signatures shy of the 2,928 they needed.

About 3,500 signatures were disqualified by the election officers, although the reasons for disqualifications could not immediately be determined.

One possibility is that the election office wouldn’t accept signatures from people who were newly registered by the petition circulators, or that those registrations have been delayed at the election office by complications related to proof-of-citizenship requirements, Freeman said.

“This is exactly what I expected from the election office,” Freeman said. He said he was “terribly disappointed” but not giving up yet.

Coupled with questions about the legality of the petition language that had earlier been raised by the city Law Department, Freeman said, “This is all about suppression of civic action.”

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman sent a news release late Thursday announcing that she would present her department’s findings to the City Clerk at 9 a.m. Friday.

The count was supposed to be completed a week ago but was delayed by the need to recheck rejected signatures and to conduct Tuesday’s primary election.

Petition supporters say they’ll be at the City Council meeting Tuesday to urge the council to put the measure on the ballot on its own initiative. The drive had been organized toward getting the measure on the ballot for the Nov. 4 state general election.

The initiative would change marijuana and paraphernalia possession from a criminal offense to a relatively minor civil violation. The maximum fine would be $25, instead of the current maximum penalty of $2,500 and a year in jail.

While marijuana would still be illegal under state and federal law, local decriminalization could encourage police to deal with minor pot violations in ways other than formal arrest, petitioners say.

Wichita police now arrest about 1,800 to 1,900 people a year on charges of marijuana crimes, creating thousands of criminal records that can close off opportunities for jobs and education.

Records show that 30 to 40 percent of those arrested are black, although black people make up only 11.5 percent of the city’s population. A national study by the American Civil Liberties Union found similar overall rates of marijuana usage among teens and adults; 14 percent for black people and 12 percent for white people.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or

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