Marijuana cases make way through city court

Jury still out on effectiveness of new law

The city of Lawrence is now in the business of prosecuting marijuana cases.

But a key supporter of the new law that allows people accused of first-time marijuana possession to be charged in the city’s Municipal Court rather than the state’s District Court system said it was too soon to tell if the law was working as intended.

“I don’t think we have enough data right now to draw any conclusions,” said Laura Green, executive director of the Lawrence-based Drug Policy Forum of Kansas. “We’ll probably need about six months to know whether it is working well.”

Municipal Court has processed 17 misdemeanor marijuana cases since early April when the new ordinance took effect. Only three cases have been resolved, with all three people pleading guilty.

Each was given a $200 fine, plus $42 in court costs, and ordered to undergo a drug evaluation that could cost about $100. Two of the three also were made to pay a $400 laboratory fee to cover costs of testing the drugs.

But City Prosecutor Jerry Little said the drug testing fee wouldn’t be common under the Municipal Court system. He said those two cases had started in the District Court system and were transferred to the Municipal Court system.

Little said it was common practice for nearly all marijuana cases in District Court to be subjected to laboratory tests. Municipal Court will rely more on field tests, Little said.

The remaining 14 cases have not yet worked their way through the system. Many of those charged may be eligible for diversion agreements if they don’t have a prior record, Little said.

He said he thought the system, thus far, was working well.

“We haven’t seen huge volumes in the number of cases coming through,” Little said. “It has been about what we have expected.”

City commissioners in March approved the new ordinance after debating whether the law should include a minimum fine for violators. Ultimately, commissioners settled on a $200 minimum fine. The state law, which is used in district court, has no minimum fine but is left to the judge’s discretion.

But Little said he suspected the Municipal Court system would end up resulting in fewer costs for violators because many Municipal Court cases will not have the $400 laboratory fee. Court costs in Municipal Court also are less than in District Court – $42 compared with $117.

Douglas County Dist. Atty. Charles Branson was out of the office Thursday and unavailable to comment on whether the new system had freed up time for his office to pursue other matters.

Green opposed the $200 minimum fine but said the new city ordinance still could be valuable because a conviction in Municipal Court would not trigger a federal provision that could cause students to lose federal financial aid.

The new city law only allows first-time violators of marijuana law to be prosecuted in Municipal Court. Repeat offenders still must be prosecuted in District Court. First-time offenders could face prosecution in District Court if there are other circumstances or charges that warrant it.