Why not lower fines for marijuana possession, advocacy group asks

UG committee to discuss decreasing fine for marijuana possession on Monday

by Mary Rupert

A Unified Government committee is scheduled to hear a proposal to reduce the fine for marijuana possession on Monday, May 20.

The UG Administration and Human Services Committee meeting will be held in the fifth floor conference room at City Hall, 701 N. 7th St., Kansas City, Kansas, immediately following the 5 p.m. Monday Public Works and Safety Committee meeting.

Chris Morrow, the Kansas executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is scheduled to speak in favor of lowering the fines.

Chris Morrow (File photo)

Morrow, the former mayor of Gardner, Kansas, and the running mate of Carl Brewer in the 2018 governor’s primary, said Friday that he has visited with residents of Wyandotte County about marijuana laws in general and Wyandotte County in particular.

It will not be the first time this year marijuana has been discussed at the local level. The UG Commission discussed a legislative platform this past winter: “If the Kansas Legislature chooses to legalize the sale and use of marijuana, local governments must be allowed to collect local sales taxes on those sales.” The platform statement carefully avoided taking a position of whether marijuana use should be legalized.

Also, on March 18, Murray Anderson Sr., a businessman, made a presentation to a UG committee asking the UG Commission to support decriminalization of the use of marijuana. At that meeting, the UG commissioners did not take a vote on it nor make any comments on it.

“The biggest thing is with marijuana becoming more prevalent, more accepted, legal in a number of different ways across the country, the chances that somebody is going to get caught with a personal use amount of marijuana in their possession increases,” Morrow said on Friday. “And the current penalties for it are unreasonable.”

In Wyandotte County, individuals may be fined up to $1,000 and spend as much as six months in jail, he said.

“If you just cross the state line into Kansas City, Missouri, all you get is a ticket and a $25 fine,” he said. “We’re talking to the commission to see if we can garner their support to study and approve an ordinance that would set a penalty amount that’s reasonable.”

Morrow said that Wichita now has a $50 fine for simple possession, and Lawrence in April approved a $1 fine for first and second infractions. Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2014.

If the UG doesn’t want to lower the fine amount, NORML’s next step would be to pursue a petition placing the issue on the November election ballot here, he said.

Morrow said he thinks there is enough support here to pass a ballot issue, and also there is support across the state.

When asked how the local government would replace the revenues produced by the fines, Morrow said law enforcement would just focus more closely on other crimes that might be committed, and fines paid through those law enforcement efforts would replace it. There are people arrested for marijuana possession who spend time in the jail at a cost of $90 a day to the county for up to six months, he said.

“Whatever they’re going to lose in revenue, they’ll make up for in savings,” Morrow said.

There is a mix of laws — federal, state and local — that apply to marijuana possession. Often, the first and second possession infractions are misdemeanors in Kansas, with the third infraction a felony that goes out of the municipal court and into district court. The reduction of fines would apply only to the first two infractions at the local ordinance level.

“The people of Kansas nearly 55 or 60 years ago approved local control as part of the Kansas constitution for reasons just like this, that local municipalities can take appropriate action in behalf of their own citizens,” he said.

When asked if making the fines less steep would encourage more marijuana use, and thus lower Wyandotte County’s health rankings, Morrow indicated that he believes marijuana is more healthy for people than alcohol and tobacco.

“In 33 states in the nation, 66 percent have adopted legislation that legalizes medical marijuana,” he said. “Just in the month of May, medical marijuana legislation has moved forward in Nebraska and Alabama. It’s obvious that the majority of the people in the country believe that medical marijuana can provide health benefits.”

Although Kansas has a history of being a dry state for many years following prohibition, Morrow says marijuana fits in with Kansas because it is largely an agricultural state and cannabis is an outstanding agricultural crop. The Kansas Legislature recently approved the cultivation of industrial hemp, he said. In the future, he believes more people will become more accepting of marijuana.

Morrow’s response to a question about whether the use of marijuana would lead the use of more dangerous drugs was, “I’m not a proponent of the gateway drug theory.”

He said there is a lot of research that refutes claims that marijuana use leads to the use of harder drugs. Information from NORML stated that most people who use marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs, and their use of marijuana usually lessens after middle age. NORML information stated that in some cases, the use of marijuana for medical purposes reduced the use of opioid drugs. (https://norml.org/marijuana/fact-sheets)

Also, Morrow said that there is no evidence that DUIs increase because of the legalization of marijuana. According to information from NORML, the effects are less dramatic than the changes in performance associated with the use of alcohol. If fines are reduced for simple possession, it will still be illegal to drive and use marijuana or drink. The DUI laws have stricter penalties.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stated that marijuana use by drivers who are intoxicated can affect driving, causing problems with coordination and judgment (https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drug-impaired-driving)

Morrow also said that people of color are arrested for marijuana possession at three times the rate of whites, and that needs to be taken into consideration in Kansas City, Kansas, where people of color make up the majority of the population.

This past year in the Kansas Legislature, bills were introduced in the House and Senate to legalize medical marijuana, he said. One bill received a hearing in the Senate, while the other bill had about 30 cosponsors. The bills did not pass this year.

Another bill in the House would have decriminalized marijuana use, which would not have been the same as decriminalization, he added. It would have changed marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a civil infraction. It did not pass this year. North Dakota and New Mexico have approved similar laws.

In some past years, Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., has sponsored legislation on medical marijuana, and has supported legalization.