Lawrence City Commission to consider lowering fines for marijuana possession
photo by: Mike Yoder
Lawrence city leaders will soon consider whether to move forward with changes that would decrease the city’s penalties for possessing marijuana, which currently amount to hundreds of dollars.
Last month, Lawrence city commissioners expressed support for lowering the fine for the possession of small amounts of marijuana to $1 for first and second convictions. As part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission will consider amending the city ordinance that lays out the penalties for marijuana possession.
Mayor Lisa Larsen told the Journal-World that for her, lowering the fines for marijuana possession is about criminal justice. Larsen noted that studies have shown that people of color are arrested for marijuana possession at much higher rates than white people.
“I just think it’s so disproportionate that we need to do something to get back to something that’s reasonable and provides more equity to our justice system,” Larsen said. “That’s what this is about, it’s about justice.”
For instance, a 2013 report by the ACLU found that nationwide, black people are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. The report found that in Kansas black people are 4.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession and 3.7 times more likely in Douglas County.
The ACLU report relied on the FBI’s crime reporting program and U.S. census data, and found such racial disparities for marijuana possession exist in all regions of the U.S., whether urban or rural, wealthy or poor, or with large or small black populations. The report states that arrests and convictions for possessing marijuana can negatively impact public housing and student financial aid eligibility, employment opportunities, child custody determinations and immigration status.
Currently, those found in possession of marijuana could have to pay around $400 in fines and other charges to the city and potentially hundreds more if they are also charged with possessing drug paraphernalia, such as a pipe or other device.
The changes being brought to the commission are for the first and second convictions of possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana, according to a draft of the ordinance changes. The commission previously expressed interest in having the changes apply to people 18 and over, as opposed to those 21 and over as proposed by city staff. Third convictions would be a felony under state law and therefore could not be processed in municipal court, which only handles misdemeanors.
City staff said in a memo to the commission that because no firm direction was provided regarding the amount of the fine or age at which it would apply, that those details have been left blank in the draft ordinance and that the commission can formally vote Tuesday on those elements.
Under the city’s current policies, people charged with possession of both marijuana and drug paraphernalia 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.
When previously discussed, 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. They would still be responsible for paying the $63 for court costs and judges could still order an evaluation if they found it necessary. The new ordinance, if approved, would not change the $130 additional cost for a diversion, but some commissioners indicated they were interested in further discussing those fees.
When asked if she had heard any concerns from residents about the proposed changes, Larsen said she had only heard a few. She said the concerns she heard dealt with health effects of consuming marijuana, especially for juveniles. She said there are health issues with the abuse of any substance, and that she thinks the commission needs make sure fines are reasonable and the law is applied equitably.
Regarding the fine amount, Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said there is nothing legally stopping the city from setting the minimum and presumptive fine for marijuana possession at $1. Garcia noted that the state statute does not have a mandatory minimum, so as long as the city doesn’t charge more than the maximum fine under state law, or $1000, it would be in line with requirements.
Garcia said the changes would not affect drug paraphernalia fines, as that is a separate section of city code and applies to all drugs equally, whether marijuana, meth or heroin. She said that section could be restructured to differentiate among paraphernalia for different drugs.
The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.