Voters in Wichita, Kansas, could soon bring marijuana reform to the heart of conservative America.
The city council voted in January to put a decriminalization initiative on the April municipal ballot. The measure, spurred by a citizens’ petition, passed the council by a vote of 6-1.
Council members also said they wouldn’t vote to pay for a legal fight with the state over local marijuana decriminalization. But they acknowledged Republican state officials would likely pick a fight anyway.
The council complained that state law is uncertain when it comes to municipal ballot proposals. Members said they followed local election laws, but lawyers for the city said the measure apparently conflicts with state anti-pot laws. The effect of that discrepancy remains unclear, however.
Replace criminal penalties with civil fines
The ordinance would remove criminal penalties for minor pot possession and replace them with a small civil fine, similar to a traffic ticket. Currently, simple possession is a misdemeanor that comes with a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
Mayor Carl Brewer said the council has already received several calls from state lawmakers saying they didn’t want the initiative on the ballot. The city had three choices: enact decriminalization themselves, put the issue on the April 7 ballot, or ask the county courts for a legal 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,” Miller said. “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.”
The future is in doubt
Council member James Clendenin said that even if the initiative passes, its future is in doubt. But he supported it because Wichita voters want a chance to make their own decision.
“I would put a lot of money on quite the legal fight in the future,” Clendenin said.
Marijuana advocates praised the decision. Esau Freeman, who launched the local Marijuana Reform Initiative, said it was the only avenue open to activists, since state lawmakers have blocked every attempt at reform.
Freeman said he was surprised at Council Member Pete Meitzner, the only no vote. Meitzner said he wanted to let the state handle cannabis law, but Freeman said that approach was disingenuous.
“Pete Meitzner surprised me, especially with his sentiments of taking this to the state level,” Freeman said. “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.”
If Wichita does successfully decriminalize cannabis, it would mark a major triumph in the movement to legalize weed at the local level. And reform in Wichita could eventually mean reform in Kansas, easily one of the reddest states in the country.