Movement on marijuana

Kansas no longer seems like the last place you’d expect to weaken marijuana laws.
Kansas no longer seems like the last place you’d expect to weaken marijuana laws.

Because of Wichita’s approval of a city ordinance in April and House action last week, Kansas no longer seems like the last place you’d expect to weaken marijuana laws.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s order Wednesday in response to Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s challenge of Wichita’s new marijuana ordinance was welcome news. The September oral arguments and resulting ruling should clarify the future of the ordinance, which is caught up in legal confusion.

Forced onto the April 7 ballot by a successful petition drive, as state law allows, the new ordinance makes first-time possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Wichita a criminal infraction with a $50 fine for those 21 and older – which is at odds with state law’s definition of marijuana possession as a Class A misdemeanor subject to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail.

Approval of the ordinance, with 54 percent of the vote, came despite warnings from Schmidt that it “may not lawfully be adopted.” The high court’s decision to hear the case brought by Schmidt puts the ordinance on hold – but promises a more definitive judgment sooner than did a city-filed lawsuit at the district level. Wichitans who signed the petition and voted “yes” deserve to know as quickly as possible whether the ordinance is valid and enforceable, as do the city leaders, police officers and Municipal Court officials who’d be expected to implement it.

When Schmidt advised Wichita’s petitioners in March that they should have gone to the Legislature instead of City Hall, the idea of legislative approval for any kind of marijuana reform seemed far-fetched. But last week the House voted 81-36 to lower penalties for first and second possessions of marijuana (which would save an estimated $1.7 million through fiscal 2017 by decreasing inmate numbers). It also would allow doctors to prescribe medicinal hemp oil to treat seizures, and enable the state to study industrial hemp. Even if House Bill 2049 ends there, with no Senate action, it opens the door to reform.

A recent opinion poll furthered the impression that the state, like much of the nation, is quickly changing its thinking on pot. The latest Kansas Speaks survey, released last month by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, found 63 percent support for fining (rather than jailing) those arrested with small amounts of marijuana and 68 percent support for allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana.

Though it’s no Colorado yet, Kansas has company in the heartland in shifting its stand on pot: Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature gave initial approval this week to a medical marijuana bill.

Much remains uncertain, but recent events should raise hopes for Kansans who see in marijuana reform the opportunities to save tax dollars and ease suffering.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman