Voter-Approved Marijuana Initiative Fraught With Unknowns
Voters in Wichita have approved a referendum aimed at lessening the penalty for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana. State law enforces a $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail. The new city ordinance would only impose a $50 fine and no jail time. But it’s not clear whether the city is able to move forward with the change. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports…
On a bright, clear afternoon—just days before the general election—a handful of state officials gathered in front of the Sedgwick County Courthouse in downtown Wichita.
Representative Mark Kahrs, along with Representative Steve Brunk, called a press conference to draw attention to the marijuana referendum.
Kahrs wanted voters to defeat the referendum, saying it conflicted with state law, and is illegal. But, voters approved it anyway.
Following the general election, the big question is, what's next? City officials would like to know that, too.
City Council Member Janet Miller says as of now, nothing has changed.
“A new ordinance would not actually go into effect until the city council would vote to enact it,” Miller says. “The city filed an action with the district court for a ruling on whether or not it would be lawful for us to enact (the referendum).”
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt sent a letter to city officials back in March, saying the referendum was essentially meaningless. But Miller says that letter wasn’t legally binding, and that the city is now asking for a formal opinion from the Sedgwick County District Court.
“We’re assuming that the court will concur with the Attorney General’s opinion, which is that it would not be lawful for us to enact it,” she says.
Neal Allen is a political science professor at Wichita State University. He says he’s not sure what will happen as the referendum heads to court.
“The question is about two powers that are in conflict,” Allen says. “The state’s power to make laws involving substances, and the city’s power to have initiatives that can alter the city’s public policy.”
Allen adds that the Kansas Constitution clearly outlines that municipalities can’t change state law, but they can pass ordinances born from petitions. So, what happens when an ordinance conflicts with state law? He says that’s not clear. And, if the referendum were to be enacted, it would create confusion within local law enforcement.
“The city can tell their police officers what to do and what not to do, but they don’t have any power over enforcement of state laws,” Allen says. “So, you would still have the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department, who still have jurisdiction within the city of Wichita, to arrest somebody for marijuana and send them through the existing system.”
State lawmakers have said that marijuana reform advocates are knocking on the wrong door, and that change has to come from the Kansas legislature. City Council Member Janet Miller says advocates have already done that.
“The ultimate irony here is that this group has been to the state and has done so for a number of months and years and not gotten any favorable responses,” she says.
After getting nowhere with marijuana reform on the state level, Miller says advocate groups sought change in Wichita.
“State statute says you can petition your local municipal government for changes in ordinance,” she says. “They did that. And then they end up being chastised for not coming to the state.”
Esau Freeman is one of those advocates. He’s a driving force behind the marijuana initiative that was approved by voters in Wichita. He says that no matter what happens next, the win has symbolic meaning going forward.
“A good portion of the people who care to get up and go vote are in favor of this,” Freeman says. “I look forward to our state legislators working with us, because this doesn’t have to be a struggle. This can be something we can sit down and talk about.
“We’re not children. We’re tax payers.”
There are two marijuana-related bills stalled in the Kansas statehouse. One would legalize hemp oil for use with seizures, and the other would lessen penalties for marijuana in the hopes of reducing prison populations. But, the Republican led statehouse has voiced opposition to marijuana decriminalization—Representative Mark Kahrs among them.
“The citizens of Wichita should weigh heavily the potential outcome of moving towards the decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana in our community, and its negative impact on our children and our families,” Kahrs says.
Wichita City Council Member Janet Miller isn’t sure when the Sedgwick County District Court will make a decision. Meanwhile, Kansas Attorney General Schmidt has now filed a petition in the Kansas Supreme Court that seeks to void the ordinance all together. Sedgwick County District Court's opinion over a marijuana initiative passed in Tuesday’s election.