When the Wichita City Council approved putting on the April ballot a proposal that would reduce the criminal penalty for adult possession of small amounts of marijuana to an infraction with a fine (essentially making it the same as a minor traffic violation), it did the appropriate thing (Jan. 28 Eagle).
After months of work and much painstaking attention to detail, the many volunteers associated with the Marijuana Reform Initiative had done exactly what the law requires, and the City Council recognized that.
It was interesting, however, as I sat in the City Council chambers and listened to the council members’ comments, to be reminded how intimidating self-government can sometimes appear to be.
Multiple members of the council expressed consternation over the fact that the laws in question are “fuzzy.” Obviously, if the voters of Wichita approve this measure and the city government acts in accordance with it, the city will be in violation of state law, which categorizes marijuana possession as an offense deserving of a year in jail and a fine of thousands of dollars.
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And yet, for them to simply dismiss this legally produced petition would also have been a violation of state law. Hence, their frustration.
But there is no good reason for anyone to feel frustrated. What we have here is rather simple: a group of citizens making use of the procedures legally available to them to directly initiate political action.
As with any political action, taken by any means on any level of government, there always will be citizens organized – either directly, or through elected representatives or through other established interests – to oppose it. That’s to be expected. It is the essential nature of mass democracy in a pluralistic society: many different groups, acting on behalf of many different agendas, using many different venues to pursue their goals.
It’s combative and messy, and it couldn’t be any other way.
Does the fact that this particular political fight would likely involve the state claiming authority over drug laws and bringing an injunction against the city of Wichita mean that it’s different, one to be especially avoided by our elected leaders? I can’t think of any principled reason why.
There are, to be sure, certain matters that shouldn’t cross from the legislative to the judicial branches of government or back again. But questions of criminal justice and penalties have always involved fights in both legislatures and courts, and have been a particular target of direct citizen input and action for many decades. This issue shouldn’t be any different.
Also, it’s not that every city council ought to challenge the authority of every state law, any more than every state legislature ought to always challenge the authority of the national government. There are all sorts of financial and constitutional realities to be considered, and they might often suggest an acceptance of the status quo. (It would be nice if the Brownback administration recognized that.)
But nonetheless, given our pluralistic and federal system, conflicts between different governing bodies are a feature, not a bug. The number of variables that can come to play in these conflicts are huge and unpredictable.
Going forward with this vote is a step forward in the always evolving process of democracy. Clarifying “fuzzy” statutes and forcing a change in political agendas will inevitably involve clashes and challenges, and they ought to be welcomed.
Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita.