Laura Green thinks the community has a lot to gain by treating first-time marijuana offenders with a kinder, gentler attitude.
The executive director of the Lawrence-based Kansas Drug Policy Forum soon will find out if city commissioners agree. Commissioners at their Tuesday meeting are scheduled to debate an ordinance that would allow first-time marijuana offenders to be tried in Municipal Court instead of Douglas County District Court. Green said the ordinance should free up the time of prosecutors and police officers to tackle other crime issues.
"My expectation is that this is really going to reduce the man hours we spend processing people," Green said. "It will give us more time to address other issues. Lawrence still has many issues of violent crime that we can address."
Cases in the city's Municipal Court generally are resolved quicker and with fewer appearances than those in District Court.
But the new ordinance also would make life a little easier for people caught with a joint or a small amount of marijuana. Fines - ranging from zero to $2,500 - would remain the same, but the new ordinance would make it less likely that offenders would have to pay a $400 state fee that covers the cost of a laboratory to test the marijuana so that it can be presented as evidence in court.
University students also could rest a little easier. A conviction of marijuana possession in Municipal Court wouldn't trigger a federal provision that could cause students to lose their financial aid.
- 6News video: City commissioners to hear marijuana proposal (10-21-05)
- Lawrence mentioned in marijuana magazine (10-11-05)
- Chat transcript with Mayor Boog Highberger (09-08-05)
- Court differences factor into marijuana ordinance (09-06-05)
- Branson supports ordinance sending pot offenders to municipal court (09-02-05)
- On the street: Should the state charge people who test positive for illegal drugs with possession? (08-31-05)
That point alone has some city commissioners willing to support the proposed ordinance.
"That's a pretty harsh penalty for a first-time offender," City Commissioner Mike Rundle said.
The proposed ordinance, though, doesn't go as far as some communities, like Columbia, Mo. In that community, city commissioners directed police officers to make marijuana possession a low-enforcement priority. Green had asked Lawrence commissioners to consider a similar policy, but they rejected the idea in September when the issue was first presented.
Green said her groups planned on monitoring the number of marijuana possession cases the city dealt with, and may come to the city at a later time for reconsideration on the enforcement issue.
"If it appears the ordinance is being abused, we'll be back to talk to commissioners again," Green said.
Mayor Boog Highberger said he thought the city should keep an open mind about directing police to make marijuana possession a lower enforcement priority.
"I think it is something we should discuss," Highberger said. "I'm not sure putting a lot of energy into this is the best use of our resources."
Highberger also said he thought moving the cases to Municipal Court made sense. City staff members surveyed six area communities - Overland Park, Olathe, Topeka, Wichita, Manhattan and Salina - about how they dealt with marijuana cases. All but Salina allowed first-time offenders to be tried in Municipal Court. Among those cities that tried cases in Municipal Court, all but Overland Park set minimum fines at zero and maximum fines at $2,500. Overland Park set a minimum fine of $250 with a maximum of $2,500.
Staff members said Lawrence commissioners also could set a minimum fine that the judge must hand out. But Highberger said he would lobby against that.
"We have almost no ordinances that have a minimum fine," Highberger said. "We should leave it up to the judge. There are some circumstances that would call for a serious fine and some that may not call for one much at all."
Commissioners will meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.