Wichita group hopes to force vote to decriminalize marijuana

07/05/2014 4:27 PM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

A determined group of Wichita marijuana advocates is hoping that by the next Fourth of July weekend, you’ll be able to light up more than fireworks.

They think they have enough, or nearly enough, petition signatures to force a citywide vote on changing the municipal code to decriminalize marijuana.

If it passes, the initiative would change possession of marijuana or related paraphernalia from a criminal offense to a civil matter like a building code violation. The penalty would be a $25 fine, down from the current maximum of $2,500 and a year in jail.

The advocates are affiliated with the Peace and Social Justice Center, Kansas for Change and the Community Voice, a newspaper focused on Wichita’s black community.

There’s more to their campaign than just the freedom to toke.

The petition organizers believe the marijuana possession laws are a gateway into the criminal justice system for young people, especially black youths. And they say those small-time convictions create thousands of criminal records that can close off employment and educational opportunities.

Organizers have begun a painstaking process of checking thousands of petition signatures to make sure they have enough after weeding out nonvoters, nonresidents and those whose current addresses don’t match the ones on file at the election office. They’re also calling on people who downloaded petition sheets to get them notarized and turned in.

The group is aiming to turn in the petitions later this month to meet the deadline for including the initiative on the November general election ballot.

The petitioners recognize that changing the city code won’t change state and federal laws that could still be enforced against marijuana users. There’s no provision in Kansas law for citizens to bring a measure to a statewide vote without approval from the Legislature.

But they say it would send a powerful message to the Capitol if the state’s largest city votes to follow neighboring Colorado’s example, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012.

At least one legislator has been helping in the effort. Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, signed the petition and has been collecting signatures.

Finney, who periodically undergoes chemotherapy for lupus, has tried futilely for years to get the Legislature to vote on a bill she wrote to legalize medical use of marijuana.

She said the city could divert the money it is spending now to enforce marijuana laws to pay for the things it is hoping to fund through a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase already slated for a November vote.

“I just think we can be spending our tax money better, to bring in jobs and better businesses and get a reliable water source and more buses and put money into our roads,” she said.

Petitioners also said they think if the city decriminalizes pot, local police will decide it’s not worth the effort to arrest small-time users.

Longtime progressive activist Janice Bradley, a leader of the petition drive, said she and others were gathering signatures at the corner of 13th and Madison last weekend when an officer in a patrol car drove by.

“We waved and the policeman gave us a thumbs-up,” she said. “I think they want to change their relationship with the populace and this is one of the ways they can do that.”

Enforcing marijuana laws takes a lot of effort for not much gain, said Esau Freeman, another leader of the petition drive.

“It’s interwoven in the fabric of society, and we need to stop being in denial and deal with it,” he said.

If the petitioners are successful in gathering the 2,928 valid signatures they need, the City Council will have 20 days to decide whether to adopt the initiative as a city ordinance, or put it to a public vote within the next 90 days.

It is almost certain the council would decide to put it to a vote. All five of the council members who attended Thursday’s agenda review meeting said afterward that they think marijuana decriminalization is a matter for voters to decide.

“It’s still illegal at the state and federal level, and a number of issues have to be addressed if it were to pass,” said council member Janet Miller. “I’m not confident it would pass on a ballot.”

Council member Jeff Blubaugh said the change would allow police to focus more time on dangerous and violent criminals and help the perennially beleaguered city budget.

“We’ve got so many other things we need to put resources in, other than locking people up for marijuana,” he said.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said he hasn’t seen the petition and he’s not sure whether Wichita’s home-rule powers give the city enough authority to downgrade marijuana possession from a criminal matter to a civil issue.

Wichita officers make about 1,800 to 1,900 marijuana arrests a year, according to Police Department records the petitioners obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act.

The records show that between 30 and 40 percent of those arrested are black, although black people are 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.

In a June 26 signed editorial, Bonita Gooch, editor in chief of the Community Voice, cited racial disparity in enforcement as a major reason why she and her paper support the decriminalization petition.

“The facts show in Wichita, KS, people of color are disproportionately targeted and charged for simple possession,” she wrote, adding that the marijuana arrest rate for black Wichitans averages nearly four times what it is for white residents.

“The impact of this profiling begins to really show up on the back side of the arrest since so many people of color don’t have the money or resources needed to bail out of jail, nor can they afford a fancy attorney to help them get the charges dropped or set aside,” she wrote.

Freeman said he spent a couple of days in jail and 18 months on probation when he was 22, after police caught him with a small quantity of marijuana and a switchblade knife.

After he got out, “I was constantly being monitored by the system” and was regularly stopped and searched, until he finally filled out a form and paid a court fee to have his convictions expunged, he said.

“There was definitely a difference between my life before I got my record expunged and after,” he said.

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a law legalizing the possession of switchblades.

“Today switchblades are legal. Let’s get on with the rest of it,” Freeman said.

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