Although voters in the state’s largest city approved it Tuesday, an ordinance to reduce penalties for first-time marijuana possession is in limbo.
Fifty-four percent of voters voted yes on the ordinance, with stronger support from central Wichita than from the east and west parts of the city, according to county election data. Approval in some central precincts ranged from 60 to 79 percent.
Wednesday morning, the city of Wichita asked Sedgwick County District Court to issue an opinion on the legality of the ordinance.
The City Council still would have to approve the ordinance. Mayor-elect Jeff Longwell says the council will not vote on it until after the court issues an opinion.
“It doesn’t do us any good to try and play a game of chess with the taxpayers’ money on the line. We need to figure a clear path and getting court opinion will certainly be very helpful.”
At the very least, the state has the opportunity to adjust its stance on marijuana laws according to what Wichita voters shared at the polls, Longwell said.
“How we implement it at this point is all predicated on what court says and state’s willingness to budge on it,” Longwell said.
Before the vote, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt questioned the legality of the ordinance and threatened to sue the city if it passed.
State law says possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia are Class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail. Another offense with the same classification is assault of a police officer.
The city ordinance would reduce the punishment for first-time marijuana possession for adults to a $50 fine and an infraction that wouldn’t have to be disclosed on most job and college scholarship applications.
Supporters successfully submitted a petition in January to get the marijuana question on the ballot in Wichita.
Petitioners in August fell just short of the number of signatures needed to place a measure decriminalizing pot on the November ballot. After that, the City Council directed city legal staff to help them redraft the ballot language, resulting in the current proposal.
“The existing law still stands since we have received opinion from the attorney general, but that’s not binding. We need a binding ruling from the district court that will give us an indication of whether we can legally enact this ordinance or not,” said council member Janet Miller.
“I would assume if we get a concurring ruling (with the attorney general) we would vote not to,” Miller said. “If, in an unlikely event the district court has an opinion that’s different than the attorney general, we’ll have to take a different course of action.”
Scott Poor, attorney for Marijuana Reform Initiative-ICT, the group that gathered petition signatures in support of the measure, said a clause in the ordinance language would allow the court to strike down parts of it while allowing other parts to remain.
“There are certain provisions in here that are on stronger legal standing than others,” he said. He did not specify which parts.
The legal process will likely take weeks, he said.
“The wheels of justice will start to turn and the process will begin,” Poor said.