Looser marijuana penalties approved by Wichita voters (VIDEO)

Supporters of the local marijuana initiative ballot question watch returns at the Anchor on Tuesday evening. (April 7, 2015)
Supporters of the local marijuana initiative ballot question watch returns at the Anchor on Tuesday evening. (April 7, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Now that a win for marijuana reform is in the books in Kansas’ largest city, the focus shifts to Topeka, where the attorney general has called Wichita’s voter-approved initiative unlawful and the Legislature could consider as many as three marijuana-related bills in the coming weeks.

In the general city election Tuesday, Wichita voters said yes to reducing penalties for possession of marijuana. Of the 37,000 Wichita voters, 54 percent said they wanted more lenient penalties for first-time offenders. About 45 percent wanted to keep the status quo.

The major provision of the ballot initiative was to reduce the punishment for a first-time marijuana conviction to a $50 fine. Violations would be an infraction that wouldn’t have to be disclosed on most job and college scholarship applications.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, attended an Election Night party with the measure’s supporters and said she hopes the win in Wichita will send a message to the capital for the state to ease up on marijuana.

Finney, who has undergone chemotherapy for lupus, has for years pushed the Legislature for a bill allowing medical marijuana. So far, that bill has yet to advance out of a committee.

But she said she’s hopeful this year will bring action on two other bills – one that would reduce marijuana penalties to clear prison beds, and another that would allow seizure sufferers to be treated with hemp oil derived from marijuana.

As an increasing number of states decriminalize marijuana, eventually “Kansas is going to fall in line like we did with liquor by the drink and gambling,” she said.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, was one of a group of local state lawmakers who campaigned against the measure. Reached at home late Tuesday, he said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

Having the measure on a spring municipal ballot, when turnout is generally low, gives extra weight to “a highly motivated group of people who come out for one single issue,” Brunk said. Tuesday’s turnout was about 16 percent in Sedgwick County.

And Brunk said that while the voting may be over, the issue isn’t.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt has issued an opinion that the initiative is unlawful, primarily because it conflicts with state law.

Brunk said he is concerned that Wichita residents might think they are protected by the city initiative and would only have to pay a $50 fine and be on their way if they get busted for marijuana.

But they could find themselves facing prosecution under the state law and its much stronger penalties, he said.

Under state law, first-time marijuana possession is a Class A misdemeanor carrying a penalty of as much as a $2,500 fine and a year in jail. Legally, that puts it on par with violent offenses including assaulting a police officer.

Supporters of the marijuana initiative said prosecutors have been able to leverage that potential jail time into negotiations for guilty pleas and hefty fines that didn’t fit the crime.

Wichita police make 1,800 to 1,900 marijuana arrests a year.

As for the bills pending in Topeka, Brunk said he thinks the measure to lighten penalties and free prison beds “already had traction anyway because it came from Corrections.” He said it is likely to pass as part of the budget deliberations.

As for medical marijuana, he said he’s told supporters that they may get further if they can enlist doctors and/or pharmacists to the cause and disassociate it from supporters of recreational use.

Voters’ views

On Tuesday, about 30 very happy supporters of the initiative gathered at the Anchor, a downtown Wichita bar, for the Election Night watch party.

Initially, they didn’t have much to watch, as the sole TV in the bar was tuned to the basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. The basketball enthusiasts were pretty somber as the Spurs laid a 113-88 thumping on Wichita’s more-or-less home team.

Meanwhile, the election watchers settled in with beers and smartphones. Cheers went up when the returns showed them taking an early lead after trailing slightly in advance votes.

By the end of the night, the scattered cheers turned to whoops of delight.

Local Peace and Social Justice Center activist Janice Bradley said she wouldn’t have missed the party, despite dental work that gave her an achy jaw. “We’ve been doing face-to-face (campaigning) for over a year,” she said.

Some Wichita voters said the campaign against the measure was a turn-off.

“I voted yes on the marijuana question for two reasons,” Jonathan Winkler, 40, wrote in response to a questionnaire from The Wichita Eagle. “First, I support it on principle. Second, I perceive that Derek Schmidt – the state attorney general who has come down on the wrong side of virtually every social issue his office has faced – is attempting to bully Wichitans into voting no.”

Added Kenneth Kangas, 29: “The people need to send a clear message to Topeka that we will no longer be governed by laws based in lies. The prohibitionists’ propaganda surrounding this issue has been absolutely misleading and despicable.”

Others had a more nuanced view.

“I’m not for marijuana,” Marilyn McKee, 73, said in an interview at the polls. “I’m a nurse and I’ve seen the side effects of that. On the other hand, I do think there are too many people in jail.”

Initiative’s history

The marijuana initiative took almost a year to get to the ballot, with two trips to voters to collect thousands of petition signatures.

The first proposal, a more sweeping decriminalization than the one voted on Tuesday, fell 47 signatures short of qualifying for the ballot in August.

When the petitioners rebooted their campaign, City Hall worked with them on a proposal that was less legalization and more penalty reduction.

Brunk and fellow Wichita Republican Rep. Mark Kahrs were the most visible of a group of local lawmakers opposing the measure. They were joined by other state officials, including Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts and Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore.

On the campaign trail, both sides termed marijuana a “gateway” drug, but used the term in entirely different ways.

Gilmore said the drug is a gateway to child abuse and violence. “Mothers who use drugs may prostitute themselves in order to obtain their drugs,” she said in a news conference last week.

Petition organizer Esau Freeman countered that the gateway is to the criminal justice system and a life of rejected job applications and constant surveillance from authorities.

Freeman served a couple of months in jail and 18 months’ probation after he was convicted at age 22 for possession of marijuana and a switchblade knife. He said he was regularly stopped and searched by police for years after, until he paid a court fee to have the conviction expunged from his record.

The state Legislature legalized switchblades in 2013.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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