City leaders to review proposal to reduce minimum fine for marijuana possession to $50

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

City leaders will soon review potential changes that would lighten the city’s penalties for marijuana possession, which currently cost first-time offenders hundreds of dollars in fines and other charges.

As part of its work session Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will review a draft ordinance that, if ultimately approved, would reduce the minimum fine from $200 to $50 for those convicted of possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana. Court costs of $63 would remain unchanged.

Those convicted of marijuana possession would also no longer be automatically required to undergo a drug abuse evaluation, which can cost up to $150, according to a city staff memo to the commission. Judges could still order an evaluation if they found it necessary, and if the evaluation recommended treatment or education, that would amount to additional costs.

The city took up the topic after Lawrence resident Laura Green asked the commission last summer to reduce the fine for marijuana possession to $25 and remove the drug abuse evaluation requirement. Green said the current penalties are financially burdensome and not in line with the shifting attitudes regarding marijuana.

After reviewing the proposed changes, Green told the Journal-World Friday that she still thinks the fine should be $25 or less. The city noted in its memo that the $50 fine is the same as one charged by the city of Wichita, but Green said she thinks Lawrence doesn’t need to follow Wichita’s lead and could go beyond that.

“I would say that $25 or less would actually be making a statement,” Green said.

The proposed $150 reduction in fines would also reduce the cost of a diversion for possession by the same amount, according to the memo. In 2017, there were 244 charges for possession of marijuana. That same year, there were 46 convictions and 127 diversions, with some of the charges still pending.

City Prosecutor Elizabeth Hafoka previously told the commission that the city’s diversion program typically charges $100 more than what the fine would have been for an offense, meaning that under the current ordinance someone would pay at least $300 for a diversion for marijuana possession charges. In addition, all diversion applicants must pay a $30 nonrefundable application fee, according to the diversion application. Under the proposed changes, the minimum cost for a diversion would go from $330 to $180.

Green said she hopes the commission will reconsider the cost for diversion to ensure that it’s still an option for low-income residents.

“We certainly can’t make the ability to get a diversion dependent on your bank account,” Green said. “I think that’s just another way that our laws punish those who don’t have the same economic footing as others.”

The commission directed the city to reduce the fines following the last discussion of the city’s marijuana ordinance in October 2018. At that time, Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, previously asked whether the city had statistics regarding the demographics of those charged with marijuana possession, and was told that information was not available.

Those found in possession of marijuana can also be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia if they have a pipe or other device. City Attorney Maria Garcia said the proposed changes do not affect penalties for possession of drug paraphernalia. According to city code, possession of paraphernalia carries a minimum fine of $200, which would be in addition to fines for possession of marijuana.

Hafoka said in an email to the Journal-World that if someone charged with possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia were to seek a diversion, the cost would be $100 more than the combined fines for both of the offenses, plus the $30 application fee.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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