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Marijuana-reform group files Wichita petition to lessen penalties

Esau Freeman, leader of the pro-marijuana group Kansas for Change, hands over a petition to Wichita deputy city clerk Janis Edwards. Backers of the 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. (Jan.7, 2015)
Esau Freeman, leader of the pro-marijuana group Kansas for Change, hands over a petition to Wichita deputy city clerk Janis Edwards. Backers of the 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. (Jan.7, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Backers of a proposal to lessen penalties for marijuana possession in Wichita delivered 4,500 signatures to the city Wednesday in an attempt to place it on the April 7 city ballot.

If the petition is declared valid – with 2,928 signatures of people registered to vote in Wichita – the City Council will have to decide whether to adopt the proposal as written or put it to a citywide vote.

The proposal seeks to amend the city code and make a first-offense marijuana possession a criminal infraction with a $50 fine instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $2,500 and a year in jail. The conviction would be expunged after 12 months if an offender keeps a clean record.

Enforcement would be handled through a summons or citation rather than an arrest. 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 petition, filed by Esau Freeman, leader of the marijuana-reform group Kansas for Change, had 689 pages and was more than 6 inches thick.

Cameras recorded the moment.

“We will let the county count them,” deputy city clerk Janis Edwards told Freeman and Janice Bradley, who is with the Center for Peace and Social Justice.

As he stepped out of the office, Freeman said filing the petition was “a great step of success.”

“It is an accomplishment, we did things the right way, we are very certain we have the right number of signatures,” he said.

This is the group’s second attempt at filing the petition. Last summer, a petition to decriminalize pot fell 36 signatures short of the number required to place it on the November ballot.

“The first time we had 6,500 signatures, but we collected them at the River Festival, at concerts and in parks, and not everybody who signed it was from Wichita,” Freeman said. “We had people who were so excited about it from places like McPherson and Salina that they signed it and wanted to to know ‘How can I get this in my town?’ This is not just a Wichita phenomena. It has spread all over Kansas and all over the United States.”

A weaker initiative

The new initiative is weaker than the original version.

Freeman and others worked with the city law department to help formalize the petition.

“I have been working on this myself – on the state level – for about five years, just talking with legislators,” Freeman said.

“I would like to remind the legislators that the people who pay taxes in this state are over the age of 21. We are not their subjects. We are actually their employers. And when we call them and say we would like a lot of change, we expect them to act in that manner rather than say they are not going to do something or give us something. The power is in the hands of the people.”

The county election office will count and certify the signatures. Sandy Gritz,chief deputy election commissioner for Sedgwick County, said the office has no set deadline to finish that process.

“We will be getting to the process as quickly as we are able to do so,” she said. “I don’t know when we will be done.”

If the petition is declared valid, the proposal will go to the City Council.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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