An effort to decriminalize weed in one of the most conservative parts of the country will likely get onto the November ballot, surprising local observers who didn’t think many voters would support it.
“I am surprised to hear that they were able to get enough signatures,” said Tom Stanton, deputy district attorney of Reno County, Kansas.
There, a pro-cannabis group is pushing to decriminalize the City of Wichita. As of July 14 they had 5,500 signatures. Less than 3,000 are needed to qualify for the ballot, but the group plans to gather another 500 to ensure there will be enough once invalid signatures are disqualified.
“We are going to go ahead and try to get about 6,000, and we are at about 5,500 right now,” said Janice Bradley of the Peace and Social Justice Center, the group organizing the ballot drive.
Bradley said organizers had enough signatures to qualify for the ballot but decided to wait until the end of the month to turn them in. In the meantime, proponents planned to talk to the Wichita City Council in mid-July. Once the group turns in the signatures, the city will have 6 days to validate them.
If voters approve the proposal in November, weed possession in Wichita would become a civil violation rather than a crime. Offenders would receive citations and pay cheap fines, similar to a parking ticket.
Currently, possession of small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“We want to change that to a civil fine, where you pay $25,” Bradley said. “You wouldn’t have the jail, the court, the lawyer fee, the criminal record.”
As in other places where activists have pushed for decriminalization, reformers in Kansas hope to cut down on the needless arrests of people for minor pot infractions. They also want to give police more resources to crack down on real crime.
It’s not clear how much support this approach has among voters in Wichita, a relatively conservative city in one of the nation’s most conservative states. But Bradley said she thinks it’s time to give voters a choice.
“Let us see what the people really want,” she said.
The plan has plenty of opposition, especially among law enforcement. Stanton, the deputy district attorney, said most voters aren’t fully informed about marijuana’s alleged role in other crimes and about its effect on kids.
“What I am hoping is as the discussion goes forward, people will take the time to research the issue, and they will find that the use of marijuana will not enhance our society,” Stanton said.
Once officials determine the pro-cannabis group has enough signatures, the initiative will go to the city council, which will have 20 days to choose between letting voters decide in November or adopting the petition as law themselves.
Even if the initiative passes, it’s uncertain what would happen next. In such a situation, Kansas state law trumps municipal ordinance, and the decriminalization proposal wouldn’t change that.
Police in some other decriminalized communities, such as Portland, Maine, have promised not to honor the policy. Instead, they’ve said they would continue enforcing state law.