Voters will decide April 7 whether to lessen the penalty for first-time possession of marijuana in Wichita.
The Wichita City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to put the measure on the ballot after backers presented a petition with thousands of signatures supporting it. Council member Pete Meitzner voted no.
The proposal seeks to amend the city code and make a first-offense marijuana possession a criminal infraction with a $50 fine. The conviction would be expunged after 12 months if an offender kept a clean record.
Enforcement would be handled through a summons or citation, similar to a traffic ticket, 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.
Current city ordinances and state law say possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia are criminal offenses with a fine of up to $2,500 in addition to up to one year in the Sedgwick County Jail.
It’s unclear what will happen if the ordinance passes. It appears to conflict with state law, city legal staff says.
Mayor Carl Brewer said council members have had several calls from state legislators who did not want to see the issue on the ballot, and council member Janet Miller said it’s almost certain the state will take legal action to nullify the ordinance.
Because of the petition, the council had three options: approve the ordinance; put it on the April 7 ballot; or direct staff to ask the Sedgwick County District Court for an opinion.
“A number of us have real divided internal conflicts in ourselves about what to do here because we can read state statute, which tells us what the process is, so we followed it. … But state statute is unclear, fuzzy, about what to do if there’s an ordinance that is petitioned that is in conflict with state statute,” Miller said.
“Council members want to be clear they’re not trying to be antagonistic toward the state,” but it’s a matter of following procedures for petition processes, Miller said.
“This could give the state the opportunity to see how Wichita voters feel on the issue.”
Council member James Clendenin said that although he does not personally support the use of marijuana, he recognized the petition and thought residents should vote on it.
But, he said, “I would put a lot of money on quite the legal fight in the future (with the state).”
Council members said they wanted to be clear they would not support spending money on a legal fight with the state if the issue passes and is challenged.
Meitzner said he did not support putting the measure on the ballot and wanted guidance on the issue from the courts or the state.
“I think they did the only thing they could do reasonably,” said Esau Freeman, organizer for the Marijuana Reform Initiative. Earlier this month, he delivered a 689-page, 6-inch-thick petition to officials with the signatures of thousands of supporters. The petition was certified by Tabitha Lehman, the Sedgwick County election commissioner.
“Pete Meitzner surprised me, especially with his sentiments of taking this to the state level. I would remind him that I’ve been doing that for five years and we have an obstructionist Legislature that will not responsibly hear the issue,” said Freeman, who is also part of a group called Kansas for Change that is pushing for marijuana reform at the state level.
This was the second attempt by petitioners to get a marijuana issue on the ballot in Wichita.
Last August, petitioners fell 36 signatures short of the required 2,928 needed to put a measure decriminalizing pot on the November ballot. After that, the City Council directed city legal staff to help the petitioners redraft the ballot language, resulting in the petition to lessen the penalty for first-time offenders.
Proposed marijuana ballot question
Shall the following be adopted?
An ordinance reducing the penalty for first offense conviction for possession of thirty-two (32) grams or less of cannabis sativa l, otherwise known as marijuana, and/or drug paraphernalia related thereto, by persons twenty-one (21) years of age or older, to an infraction with a fine not to exceed fifty dollars ($50.00).
Source: City documents