KC Council Committee Debates Marijuana Decriminalization, Puts Off Decision For Now

Jan 11, 2017

A city council committee on Wednesday debated a proposed ordinance to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in Kansas City.
Credit SWARE. / Flickr-CC

Kansas City voters will likely get to vote on an ordinance that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Whether they'll be able to vote on it this April, however, seems unlikely. 

On Wednesday, a Kansas City Council committee debated the ordinance for the first time and held off on a decision until next week. The deadline to submit ballot language for the April election is Jan. 19. 

Under the proposal, if someone is caught with less than 35 grams of marijuana, they would get maximum fine of $25 and wouldn't be arrested. Current Missouri penalties for the same amount of marijuana include possible incarceration and fines up to $500. 

To be clear — under the petition initiative, possession of marijuana would still be illegal but the penalties for simple possession would be reduced and there would be no jail time. 

Jamie Kacz, executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws' Kansas City branch, spoke on behalf of the petitioners who submitted more than 4,000 signatures in support of the ordinance. She said in 2016, nearly 1,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in Kansas City — mostly lower-income people and minorities. 

"Non-violent offenses put unnecessary stress on our judicial system families and communities and those resources can be better spent," Kacz said. 

She says there's widespread support in Kansas City for the relaxation of marijuana laws and that other Missouri cities, like Columbia and St. Louis, have already decriminalized small amounts of pot. 

But councilwoman Alissia Canady pointed out that 35 grams is no small amount. She said when she was an assistant Jackson County prosecutor, she charged plenty of cases involving similar amounts.

Canady clarified that being caught with 35 grams of marijuana wouldn't automatically mean a $25 fine. Individuals would still be subject to felony charges if officers suspected an intent to distribute. 

Councilwoman Heather Hall also voiced concerns about the potential effect of marijuana usage in young people if the penalties for getting caught are reduced.

Kacz cited research indicating that decriminalization does not cause increased usage in youth. But Canady said data provided by Kansas City Police Deputy Chief Karl Oakman indicated otherwise. 

Oakman, for his part, didn't take a side. He said the only concern he got from his investigative unit was that reducing the penalty for possession would take away a potential bargaining tool.

He says individuals are more likely to give up information that could lead to a bigger arrest in exchange for lenience on marijuana possession charges.  

The resistance from council members comes as no surprise to Kacz. Back in November, when Kacz submitted the petition signatures, she said she expected some pushback.

However, she said across the country the public's views on marijuana are changing and she remains optimistic about this effort.

Jeff Carey serves as legal counsel for the petitioners. He said he's been working with city attorneys to address objections to the ordinance language.

If the council cannot agree on a compromise ordinance, he has pledged to submit the petition as originally written to go on an election ballot. 

Canady said she wanted to hear from the city health department and drug court before making a decision on the ordinance. 

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig