City leaders interested in reducing fines for marijuana possession

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

City leaders will soon consider whether the city should lower its fines for marijuana possession, which can be up to $1,000 for a first-time offender.

Earlier this month, Lawrence resident Laura Green presented a proposal to the City Commission to lower the fine and make other changes to the local ordinance governing marijuana possession, and the commission agreed to discuss the topic at an upcoming work session.

Green later told the Journal-World that she thinks attitudes regarding marijuana have been shifting across the country since the city adopted its ordinance regarding marijuana possession more than a decade ago. She said the penalties in the city’s ordinance are financially burdensome, and should be “modernized” given the growing acceptance of marijuana use throughout the country.

“I would say that the main reason we want to take a look at this is attitudes have changed in the country in the last 12 years, and certainly laws have changed,” Green said. “(Wednesday) night is a good example, with Oklahoma overwhelmingly passing a very broad medical marijuana bill.”

The majority of Americans now support legalization of marijuana. About 60 percent of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legalized, reflecting a steady increase over the past decade, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Though marijuana is still illegal under federal law, more than half the states allow some form of legal marijuana use. Medical marijuana is legal in 30 states, Oklahoma being the most recent addition, and recreational marijuana legal in nine, including neighboring Colorado. Medical marijuana proposals have been introduced in the Kansas statehouse as recently as this spring, but none have moved forward.

Green pushed for a local ordinance for marijuana in 2005, so that possession could be tried in municipal court rather than Douglas County District Court, but she said she’s remained concerned about the level of penalties. Specifically, Green’s proposal asks that the fine for possession be set at $25 and the drug abuse evaluation requirement be removed. The evaluation can result in drug screenings for which the offender must pay.

Currently, first-time offenders face a fine between $200 to $1,000 and potential jail time not to exceed 180 days, according to the ordinance. Those convicted of possession for the second time face a fine between $200 to $2,500 and potential jail time not to exceed a year.

photo by: Shutterstock Photo

Current penalties for pot possession in Lawrence

The ordinance does allow for leniency when it comes to fines, but no situation where it would be required. The ordinance states that the court “may” suspend all or part of a fine if it “finds substantial and compelling reasons to do so.” Factors can include the defendant’s financial status, level of cooperation and criminal history, as well as the amount of marijuana.

There were 60 convictions for possession of marijuana last year, according to Municipal Court Manager Vicki Stanwix. She said the court does not specifically track the average fine amount or how many of those convictions include a fine waiver.

The ordinance states that any person convicted of possession or who receives a diversion for possession will be required by the court to obtain a drug abuse evaluation. Based on results of the evaluation, the court can require the offender to complete drug abuse education, counseling or a treatment program. The ordinance states that, as provided for in state law, the person will pay any lab fees associated with the conviction or diversion.

Commissioners agree with Green that attitudes regarding marijuana have changed and that local penalties need another look. Exactly what those penalties should be will be discussed at a work session later this summer.

Mayor Stuart Boley and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen both noted that it’s been some time since the ordinance was created, and that they would like to reconsider it. Larsen said she thinks the conversation is especially appropriate now given national changes, as well as local conversations about the criminal justice system.

“I think in light of nationally what is going on that it warrants another look — I am open to that,” Larsen said. “And also if our county as a whole is looking at the entire structure of the justice system and evaluating that, I think this is probably a good time to start looking at that.”

Boley agreed that the fines should be reconsidered, though without more information from staff could not say whether they need to be lowered. In addition, he said there are a lot of questions regarding the drug evaluation and screening requirement, and that he would like to find out more about how and why it is used. Boley said that the commission needs to be responsive to Green’s concerns that those costs can be burdensome for some.

“It sounds like from what (Green) was saying that that can be an onerous burden for people who lack resources, and I think that’s something we have to learn about,” Boley said. “The other question is, what’s the utility? Why are we doing it?”

Both Boley and Larsen said they would be looking to city staff and attorneys to provide guidance on what changes can be made to the ordinance, and that information would inform the discussion and their positions on how the ordinance should change.

“It’s a good conversation to have, and it’s been one that has needed to happen for a while,” Larsen said.

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