Marijuana decriminalization supporters shift focus to spring ballot

08/20/2014 7:03 AM

08/20/2014 10:10 PM

Supporters of marijuana decriminalization are now setting their sights on the spring ballot.

The change comes after organizers received word from the Sedgwick County Election Office that it would not recount the petition they had submitted for the November ballot after several errors occurred in the initial count.

At first, the petitioners were 47 registered voters short of placing the petition on the November ballot. The office later found a page that had been stuck to the back of another, but the petition was still 36 signatures short.

In all, 2,928 signatures are needed to put the issue on the ballot.

Because petition organizers already have the addresses and contact information of people who signed the petition the first time, it will take less time to get the necessary signatures the second time around, said Esau Freeman, one of the leaders of the initiative.

But one drawback of having the issue on the spring ballot is a smaller voter turnout, he said.

The petitioners’ initiative would change simple possession of marijuana and paraphernalia from a criminal offense to a minor civil violation like a building code infraction. It would set the maximum penalty at $25, down from the current maximum of $2,500 and a year in jail.

Violations could still be prosecuted under state and federal law, but organizers say city police would be less likely to arrest small-time users.

The Wichita City Council has directed the city attorney’s office to work with the petitioners on drafting language for a new petition that could be circulated ahead of the spring ballot.

That work will begin in the next few weeks. Freeman said they hope to start gathering signatures for the new petition before the end of September.

Recount denied

The focus on the spring ballot comes after petition organizers failed to have the current petition reconsidered.

They took their case to county commissioners, who said they did not have authority to assist the organizers after several errors in verifying the signatures on the petition.

Organizers also went to the secretary of state, who referred them to the state elections office, which referred them to the Sedgwick County counselor and Sedgwick County Election Office, Freeman said.

“Having traveled all around the mulberry bush, we filed a written request to resolve our grievance,” Freeman told the City Council on Tuesday. “Late Monday afternoon we got our answer. The grievance submitted to the county counselor was sent to the Sedgwick County Election Office for response.”

That e-mail from Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman to the petitioners stated:

“There is no statutory authority or process for this office to conduct a recount. My statutory responsibility to the City Clerk was to review the signatures on the submitted petitions to determine if the persons signing the petition were qualified electors; and then to certify to the Clerk the number of qualified electors. The certification has been provided to the Clerk. I have no further authority to act in this matter.”

After speaking to the council, Freeman was met by councilwoman Janet Miller outside the council chambers. She told him to let her know if they had any issues working with the city to draft the wording of the new petition.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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