Backers of a Wichita petition drive to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession say they now have more than enough signatures to put an initiative on the April 7 city election ballot – and they’ll be turning in those petitions next week.
This is the second try for the campaigners, who fell a handful of signatures short of forcing a vote on pot decriminalization in the November general election.
They’re planning to present the new batch of signatures to be counted by election officials on Jan. 7, said Esau Freeman, leader of the pro-marijuana group Kansas for Change.
Leading up to that, they’ll be making public presentations at the City Council meeting and at a state legislative forum on Jan. 6, Freeman said.
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The new initiative is significantly weaker than the original version and is a result of negotiations and compromise between marijuana advocates and City Hall. Freeman characterized it more as an incremental step toward eventual decriminalization.
“We’re calling it the Marijuana Reform Initiative,” Freeman said. “It’s not decriminalization and no way is it legalization.”
Both Freeman and fellow organizer Janice Bradley of the Peace and Social Justice Center said they’re confident that this time they have the signatures they need to get the initiative on the ballot.
Their first try came up 36 signatures short of the 2,928 required to force a vote on a city initiative, after about 3,600 signatures were disqualified for procedural errors.
Most of those signatures were disallowed because the signers either lived outside of Wichita or were not fully registered to vote in city elections.
Bradley said she thinks organizers remedied those problems this time around by collecting more than 3,000 signatures from people who were leaving Wichita polling places after voting in November.
“We’re pretty confident of the quality of signatures we got on Election Day,” Bradley said.
Now they have slightly more than 4,000 signatures and expect to get a few hundred more when circulators turn in their final petitions next week, Freeman said.
Freeman said the advocates agreed to work with the city Law Department and dilute the initiative to head off the potential for the city to sue and overturn the measure in court.
The new initiative would amend the city code to make first-offense marijuana possession a criminal infraction carrying a $50 fine instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $2,500 and a year in jail. Enforcement would be handled through a summons or citation rather than an arrest.
If the offender keeps a clean record, the conviction would be expunged after 12 months, Freeman said.
The change would apply only to those 21 or older carrying 32 grams or less of marijuana and/or the paraphernalia to use it.
The original initiative went further and aimed to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a civil violation with a maximum penalty of $25.
Freeman acknowledged that the new initiative doesn’t address advocates’ concerns over younger people getting criminal records for pot possession in their teens, which can hinder educational and career opportunities for them later.
But he said the initiative, if approved, would send a message to elected officials that Kansans want more-relaxed marijuana laws.
He said that would put advocates of decriminalization on firmer ground to lobby legislators to change state laws that can’t legally be overturned through the local initiative process.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.