Foreseeing marijuana legalization in Kansas, DA concerned about effect on violent crime
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson says he’s often asked whether he supports legalizing marijuana.
“My answer is typically, ‘It doesn’t matter,'” Branson said. “It’s coming to Kansas.”
Branson said he expects Kansas to legalize medical marijuana as soon as a year or two from now, and recreational marijuana at some point after that.
With that assumption, Branson said his focus is on how legalization will — or won’t — affect crime in Douglas County.
For now, that entails watching reports from other states, some of which have reported violent crime increases but haven’t yet firmly concluded that they are connected to marijuana legalization.
“Nobody really knows yet what this is going to look like,” Branson said.
“That concerns me. I really don’t have any problem with decriminalization, but I do have a problem with the violent crime associated with it.”
In Lawrence, first and second offenses for possessing small amounts of marijuana now carry little consequence.
Branson said he was never consulted about the Lawrence City Commission’s vote earlier this year to lower the fine to $1 for violating the city ordinance banning possession of marijuana.
But he is reacting to it. As the Journal-World reported last month, Branson announced that his office would stop prosecuting cases of simple marijuana possession. He said the city’s decision had a direct bearing on his thinking.
“Their action drove a lot of things,” Branson said. “The city’s decision went into my consideration process a lot.”
He said the fine for getting caught with marijuana by a Lawrence police officer — which most often would result in the case going to Municipal Court — simply had become too different from the fine if a person was caught by a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy or other law enforcement official. Those cases often go to Douglas County District Court, and would result in significantly stiffer penalties upon conviction.
“I thought it was important for us to make the change just from a fundamental fairness standpoint,” Branson said.
Most simple marijuana possession cases already were being filed in Municipal Court. But that doesn’t mean marijuana never gets mentioned in Douglas County District Court. Far from it. The drug is at the heart of many violent crime cases, Branson said.
A significant share of Lawrence’s shootings and armed robberies are linked to illicit marijuana sales. Such cases pending or recently resolved include:
• The shooting of a teen in a Lawrence park in January 2018. Michael A. Hormell is accused of setting up a marijuana buy from the teen with plans to rob him instead, then shooting the victim when he fought back.
• The shooting of a 21-year-old man in his apartment in December 2017. Kayshunna C. Poindexter and four co-defendants barged into the apartment with guns — Branson said the robbers thought the man’s roommate had weed — and Poindexter shot the man during the course of the robbery.
• A string of home-invasion robberies in 2018, all linked to a man who allegedly set up sham marijuana buys and then, along with co-defendants, robbed victims at gunpoint instead of buying. True J. Shipley also was linked to a March 2018 shooting, in which he reportedly arranged for the shooter to buy marijuana from the victim that day.
The Journal-World has reported numerous other marijuana-linked armed robberies in recent years, even one in which the victim was murdered in 2014.
“These are the ones we know of,” Branson said. “We’re quite confident there’s others that we don’t know of.”
When victims of such crimes do report, however, Branson said his office usually prosecutes the violent offender instead of the drug offender. He said the people who commit violent crimes are a more serious threat to the community.
Those violent crimes may be something recreational marijuana users want to keep in mind, Branson said. Casual users of the drug can still get caught up in bad situations involving drug dealers or others engaged in the trade of the illicit drug. Branson said the lessening of the penalties for marijuana possession shouldn’t suggest to users that such dangers don’t exist.
“People do put themselves at additional danger and risk when they use marijuana,” Branson said. “We have serious issues of violence associated with the drug trade.”
Branson said you don’t have to be a dealer to get caught up in those types of violent situations. His office has seen multiple cases of a simple marijuana purchase leading people to the wrong place at the wrong time.
“They think they are just there to buy, but the dealer is really there just to rip them off, rob them of their money at gunpoint,” Branson said.
Branson, though, is not subscribing to the theory that lower penalties for possessing marijuana will make the city a more attractive place for dealers to sell their products. Branson believes dealers already have Lawrence circled on their maps as a prime marijuana market.
“Lawrence has always been attractive to dealers and will remain attractive just because of our population of college students,” Branson said. “The city’s steps don’t radically change that, and I don’t think our steps do either.”
But the legalization of marijuana in nearby states like Colorado does have the potential to change the type of dealers that operate in the community. In short, legalization may make it easier for neophytes to get into the business. Legalization means you no longer have to have a connection to the underworld to get a supply of marijuana to sell. You can simply buy it in Colorado and bring it back to Lawrence yourself. A crop of neophyte drug dealers may create its own problems of violence, though.
Branson said his office has seen violent crimes where criminals rob inexperienced marijuana dealers of their stash and their cash.
“They think they can make a quick buck and smoke free,” Branson said, “but they are entering a world they are not ready for.”
Some supporters say legalization of marijuana could help solve many of these problems of violence in Kansas. Branson said he’s not sure that would be the case.
So far, authorities in states that have legalized recreational marijuana report there’s still a black market for the drug, and that black market is still breeding violent crime.
In neighboring Colorado, “law enforcement and prosecutors are aggressively pursuing cases against black market activity,” according to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report put out in October 2018. The report says the quantity of cases filed for serious marijuana-related crimes has remained consistent with pre-legalization levels, but organized crime cases have significantly increased.
The Colorado report also notes that the percentage of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for Delta-9 THC decreased from 11.6% in 2016 to 7.5% in 2017. However, fatal crashes where a driver tested positive for any cannabinoids increased from 55 (11% of all fatalities) in 2013 to 139 (21% of all fatalities) in 2017.
Branson called such reports “troubling.”
“We see a lot of criminal activity associated with illegal marijuana sales, and a lot of it is violent activity,” he said.
That violent activity is one of the reasons that Branson said he wants the community to remember the importance of substance abuse treatment. The city’s and his office’s actions to lessen the penalties for marijuana possession shouldn’t be a reason to pull back on treatment options in Lawrence, he said.
“We have to remember that the sale and violence happen because there is a demand,” Branson said. “That demand is there because people are dealing with an addictive substance, and we have no good treatment options for many people in this community.”
— Journal-World editor Chad Lawhorn contributed to this report.
Marijuana in Lawrence
First, states near Kansas started legalizing marijuana in various forms. Then, the city of Lawrence took its own step in March 2019 to greatly reduce the fine for simple marijuana possession. In October 2019, the Douglas County District Attorney’s office weighed in by saying it would stop prosecuting simple marijuana possession cases. It seems that the community is at an inflection point on the issue of marijuana. The Journal-World decided to devote a significant portion of its Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, edition to articles exploring issues with this still illegal drug.