Editorial: Lower penalties for marijuana
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Lawrence city commissioners are right to support reducing penalties for marijuana possession.
At a work session Tuesday, commissioners were unanimous in backing a change to the city ordinance regarding marijuana possession to lessen punishments, which are more severe than what state law requires.
State law requires no minimum fine for first-time offenders convicted of marijuana possession and no mandatory drug evaluation. Under the city’s ordinance, first-time offenders pay a minimum fine of $200, plus court costs, and must also pay for and undergo a drug evaluation. Both city ordinance and state law set a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or 180 days in jail.
First-time offenders in Lawrence typically pay the minimum $200 fine, $63 for court costs, $85 to $150 for a mandatory drug evaluation and additional costs if education or counseling is required. Defendants also receive a 90-day suspended jail sentence, meaning the sentence isn’t served unless a subsequent violation occurs, and a six-month probation requiring court appearances monthly or every two months until all obligations are met, according to a presentation to the commission.
To receive a diversion for marijuana possession, City Prosecutor Elizabeth Hafoka said, the city typically charges $100 more. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, rightly noted that practice was unfairly burdensome on poorer residents and made it easier for the wealthy to walk away with a clean record.
“I think it’s a broader issue than just this specific ordinance, but I do have concerns with that,” Ananda said. “Looking at criminal history and how it impacts one’s future, and when you have money then you’re able to have less of an impact.”
The marijuana topic was raised this summer by Lawrence resident Laura Green, who asked the commission to reduce the fine to $25 and to remove the drug-abuse evaluation requirement. Green said the penalties, in addition to being financially burdensome, were not in line with shifting public attitudes regarding marijuana.
Commissioners indicated a reduction in the minimum fine to perhaps $50 was warranted. They also indicated support for either eliminating the mandatory drug evaluation or leaving the evaluation to the discretion of a judge.
Both steps are appropriate. Use of marijuana, now legal for medicinal purposes in several states and for recreational use in a handful, is more broadly accepted than ever before. A recent Gallup poll showed 62 percent of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana. In such an environment, common sense dictates that the city of Lawrence would reduce marijuana penalties.