Lawrence city leaders express support for lowering fine for marijuana possession to $1

photo by: City of Lawrence

Lawrence city commissioners discuss penalties for marijuana possession at a work session, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, at City Hall.

One dollar. That’s how much Lawrence city leaders indicated they think those charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana should be fined.

As part of its work session Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission reviewed a draft ordinance that proposed reducing the minimum fine, currently $200, for those convicted of possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana. A draft of the changes suggested a minimum fine of $50 for first-time offenders only, but commissioners indicated that they were interested in reducing the fine to $1 for both first- and second-time offenders. Court costs of $63 would remain unchanged.

Mayor Lisa Larsen said that though the city can’t change the state law that makes marijuana illegal, she thinks it should do as much as it can to lower the penalties.

“I’m in favor of anything we can do to decriminalize this,” Larsen said. “I know we can’t do it because of the state law, but however close we can get to that line, I’m in favor of getting to that line.”

If ultimately approved, the changes would significantly reduce the fines paid by those charged with possession of marijuana. Currently, those found in possession of marijuana could have to pay around $400 in fines and other charges.

The city took up the topic after Lawrence resident Laura Green asked the commission last summer to reduce the fine for marijuana possession and remove a drug abuse evaluation requirement. Green told the commission that as more states legalize marijuana and support for national legalization grows among the public, it only makes sense for Lawrence to lower the fine as much as possible right now.

“I don’t really want to come back every couple years and say, ‘Hey, let’s lower the fine a little bit more, let’s lower it a little bit more,'” Green said. “Let’s be thoughtful about it now. Let’s put it in context to what’s happening.”

Commissioner Matthew Herbert suggested that the fine be $1 to make a statement. Herbert noted that the commission sends a statement regarding its legislative priorities to Kansas lawmakers each year, but said that he thought the commission taking action through its city ordinances speaks louder than words.

“We have no ability to legalize marijuana at the city level; this is a state policy,” Herbert said. “But I would advocate that by making the penalty $1, we are sending a message that we are pushing for the state to look at what is happening everywhere else in the United States.”

Those charged with marijuana possession can also be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia if they have a pipe or other device. Under the city’s current policies, people charged with both counts would pay a minimum $200 fine for possession, a minimum $200 fine for paraphernalia, up to $150 for a drug evaluation and $63 in court costs. If the person receives a diversion, they will pay an additional $130 for diversion and potentially more if the company that does the drug evaluation recommends substance abuse treatment, which can call for weekly meetings.

The new ordinance, if approved, would not change the $130 additional cost for a diversion.

Commissioners also indicated they agreed that those convicted of marijuana possession or who get diversion for possession should no longer be automatically required to undergo a drug abuse evaluation. 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.

In response to questions from the commission regarding paraphernalia charges, City Attorney Maria Garcia said that the ordinance as written doesn’t affect those charges, as paraphernalia charges aren’t specific to marijuana and apply to any illegal drugs.

Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda brought up doing away with higher penalties for second offenses for marijuana possession and other commissioners agreed. Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said that while the city doesn’t yet have demographic data from the city’s ongoing study of police contact, the racially disproportionate incarceration rate suggests that could be an issue.

“There may be a tendency for disproportionate targeting based on that, particularly since the second offense is treated differently from the first offense,” Ananda said.

Commissioners also indicated they agreed that the changes should apply to people 18 and older, and not just those 21 and older as proposed in the draft of the changes.

The ordinance will come back to the commission for consideration and a vote once city staff makes changes to the draft based on the comments made by the commission Tuesday.

City Commission Work Session 02/12/19


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