Kansas House committee kills bill to lighten certain marijuana possession charges

photo by: Conner Mitchell

Members of the Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee failed to pass a bill that would have weakened some charges for marijuana possession in the state of Kansas on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

TOPEKA — For the second year in a row, a Kansas House committee on Monday failed to pass legislation that would have reduced a swath of the state’s marijuana possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, introduced the bill on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union on Feb. 13. In its original text, the bill also called for people currently serving prison time on felony possession charges to be released from the rest of their sentence.

That language was quickly amended out of the bill by Rep. Russell Jennings, the committee chair and a Republican from Lakin. Doing so made the bill so mild that it should have advanced out of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, Highberger said.

“I think what we’re asking for, especially after the bill was amended, was pretty mild. It would just make a third and higher possession of marijuana (charge) a misdemeanor rather than a felony,” Highberger told the Journal-World. “Which, given the fact it’s legalized in several states surrounding us, (it not passing) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

While the bill will remain in the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee and could be worked on again before Thursday’s turnaround deadline — where all bills have to be passed out of the committee they were introduced in or are considered dead for the session — that seems unlikely, Highberger said.

When asked why it was so difficult to pass marijuana reform laws in the state of Kansas, Highberger struggled to find an answer.

“We toned it down from the original version last year, which stretched into cultivation and distribution charges,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s a moral opposition to drug use or whether … I don’t know what it is.”

A study by the Kansas Sentencing Commission concluded that the bill’s impacts would have been minimal on the number of Kansans currently incarcerated for felony possession charges, and instead would have had greater impacts on future inmate population.

The bill would have reduced the entry workload of the Sentencing Commission by 172 inmates in Fiscal Year 2021 and 188 inmates by Fiscal Year 2030, the study found. It also would have reduced the costs for the certified substance abuse treatment required for first-time, nonviolent marijuana possession offenders under a 2003 law by $166,590 in Fiscal Year 2021.

Nadine Johnson, the executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, testified before the committee on Feb. 19 that the legislation would have gone a long way in addressing the racial inequality that affected arrests and subsequent charges for marijuana possession.

“It is a modest, but important, measure that would do its part to reduce prison overcrowding, probation caseloads and related spending,” she said. “Reducing the prison population in our state safely and addressing the needs of probation offices with a high volume of caseloads will require myriad solutions; (this bill) provides one.”


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