Kansas City Votes to Reduce Penalties, Eliminate Jail Time for Marijuana Offenses

Under the new Kansas City measure, defendants will no longer face jail time for marijuana possession. (Photo by Peeterv/Vetta/Getty Images)

Kansas City voters made their voices heard Tuesday, April 4, when they cast their ballots in favor of a measure to curtail court penalties for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Winning a significant 71 percent of the vote, the new measure reduces fines and eliminates jail time for pot possession, according to the Kansas City Star. The maximum fine for weed possession in city court would be lowered to just $25 from the previous $500. Time behind bars is also off the table. Under the old law, those caught with weed could be jailed for up to 180 days.

The changes will apply only to cases in Kansas City Municipal Court, the newspaper reported, where defendants possess 35 grams (about 1.75 oz.) or less of marijuana.

“It’s a very positive result because we know Kansas City is ready for this change,” said Jamie Kacz, executive director of Kansas City’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The issue wound up on Tuesday’s ballot thanks in part to a petition drive led by Kacz and other NORML members.

Not everyone was a fan of the new “Mary Jane” measure, however.

Opponents pointed out that without the possibility of jail time, offenders won’t be provided a defense attorney through Legal Aid of Western Missouri. The city’s contract with the pro bono aid group states that only defendants facing jail time are entitled to free representation if they’re unable to afford their own. Moreover, defendants in Kansas City court require an attorney to obtain a diversion agreement or plea deal to get their pot charge reduced.

Diversion programs usually cost around $300, in addition to the $150 for regular required drug testing and drug education classes, the newspaper reported. For those who can’t afford that, pleading guilty to a drug charge, paying a $25 fine and another $50 in associated court fees as part of a plea bargain is more do-able.

Kacz expressed hope that the city would be able to work out some sort of arrangement so that Legal Aid could still represent those not facing jail time.

“It’s within the power of the city to do that,” she said. “They should go ahead.”

Court data obtained by the Kansas City Start found that Legal Aid represented defendants in close to 59 percent of city court pot possession cases in the past fiscal year. Almost 70 percent of those defendants were African-American, although Blacks comprise just 30 percent of the city’s population. Countless studies also have shown that African-Americans are more than twice as likely to be jailed over weed possession, although Blacks and whites use the drug at about the same rate.

City Councilwoman Alissia Canady, one of several local leaders who expressed opposition to the measure, argued that the new move would only hurt the people it intended to help out. She asserted that Black men, who make up a disproportionate number of Kansas City court defendants, might now be forced to pay for their own private attorney just to avoid a drug charge on their record.

“This does not solve anything,” Canady said. “It just creates more problems for people who don’t have any money and are already overburdened by the criminal justice system.”

So far, 29 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for either recreational or medicinal use, according to Cannabist.com. Other cities throughout Missouri, including St. Louis and Columbia, also have taken steps to slash fines and penalties for weed possession.

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