Lawrence’s marijuana experiment and the questions it creates

In this April 12, 2018, photo, a marijuana plant awaits transplanting at the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company near Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Plain and simple, the mayor of Lawrence wants marijuana to be legal.

In March, Lawrence city commissioners went about as far as they could go on that front. They lowered the fine for possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana to just $1 — not only for your first offense but also your second.

The penalty for marijuana possession was lowered after a lot of discussion about how justice wasn’t being equally served on this front. Studies have shown blacks, for instance, face more prosecution for marijuana than whites, even though use is higher among whites. There was a lot of discussion that the fine for the crime was impacting lives more than it should.

“Reasonable justice, equitable justice,” Mayor Lisa Larsen told me when we sat down together a few weeks after passage of the new Lawrence fines.

But that is a bit different than saying marijuana ought to be legal. Does Lawrence’s top elected official think the drug ought to be fair game in Lawrence? There was no hem-hawing from Larsen.

“For me, I think it should be legalized,” Larsen said. “Tax it just like any other product, and let folks make the decision from a health standpoint.”

In that respect, it would be a lot like tobacco and alcohol. People make decisions about whether they want to take the health risks that come with those products, and government regulates the products to a degree. For instance, Larsen certainly thinks there should be an age limit on legal marijuana sales, similar to tobacco and alcohol.

Such an opinion is not shocking. Many politicians advocate for legalization these days, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that a successful politician in Kansas’ most liberal city would do so. The argument the drug is not much different from alcohol or tobacco also resonates.

But it also might be wrong. At least that is the point where the Lawrence experiment gets more interesting, in my view. It sure seems — even with the nominal $1 fine — that there is a big difference between consuming alcohol in Lawrence and consuming marijuana in Lawrence.

Consider this: I don’t have to buy my alcohol from the equivalent of a backwoods moonshiner. There are plenty of bars, liquor stores and grocers where I can legally buy spirits in Lawrence.

That’s not the case with marijuana. Lawrence hasn’t — and really can’t — do anything to decriminalize the sale of marijuana. If you are buying marijuana from a dealer, that dealer is still taking a pretty large criminal risk. As such, your dealer may operate with a set of ethics that probably will preclude him from joining the Better Business Bureau.

In short, you are still forced to do business with somebody who is willing to be a criminal, and not just of the petty type. Interactions with criminals can go wrong. When you pull out your wallet to pay for 32 grams of marijuana, maybe the dealer decides he wants everything else in your wallet too. Or heaven help you if you drop by his apartment and are there at the same time a rival dealer decides he’s also going to stop by and steal your dealer’s stash.

Of course, if you are using marijuana currently, you already face those risks. The change in fine by the City Commission doesn’t make them any more or less real. Rather, the interesting question is whether having a lower fine for possessing marijuana will cause more people to experiment with it.

“I don’t know if it will increase demand,” Larsen said. “I just know the folks who use it recreationally will continue to do it with maybe less worry about whether they will get a big fine.”

That is a fair enough answer. I also don’t know whether the change in law will increase marijuana demand in Lawrence. But it seems like that is the key question we should be monitoring, because if demand does increase, so too will supply. That might mean an increase in drug dealers.

It does seem pretty obvious to me that having more drug dealers in Lawrence won’t be a good thing for the community. Even the ones who don’t intend to mug you are problematic. In fact, this idea of neophyte drug dealers is one of the things that has gotten me interested in this marijuana topic.

What I hear is that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado has made it easier to become a small-time drug dealer in Lawrence. You no longer have to have a connection to the underworld to get your supply. You simply have to buy from the legal shops in Colorado and be smart enough to not get pulled over coming from Boulder to Lawrence. It is probably not a very efficient way to be a big drug dealer, but if you are just looking for a side hustle, it might work.

The problem for the community occurs when more sophisticated drug dealers become aware of your side hustle. In short, neophyte drug dealers are easy targets to get rolled. Sophisticated drug dealers figure you’ve got some marijuana they can steal, some cash they can heist, and it probably will be an easy job because your side hustle doesn’t involve carrying the type of weaponry needed to protect your investment.

More of that type of activity won’t be good for Lawrence.

It is difficult to determine how much of that is going on currently or how much of it may in the future. But this series of articles by the Journal-World does include an article detailing our conversation with District Attorney Charles Branson. Issues like this one clearly are on his mind.

I’m not sure how much they were considered by city commissioners, though.

“Any time you start talking about criminal activities and increasing that, I’m always concerned about that,” Larsen told me. “Will this do that? I don’t know.”

That seems like one of the bigger unanswered questions in this experiment.

Perhaps a second one is whether some area residents will begin to think that Lawrence’s light fine structure for marijuana essentially means the drug is legal here. Larsen did say she hopes people don’t fall for the line that marijuana is basically legal in Lawrence. The fine may be low, but there are still other problems a possession case may create.

“You are still going to get charged,” Larsen said. “It is still going on your record. It still will look bad at a job interview and on college applications. That part isn’t going away.”

Those are important nuances to understand, but it remains to be seen how many in Lawrence’s pot-smoking crowd will pay attention to them. Larsen said it is critical that they do, especially since a third possession conviction is a felony that can include jail time.

“I would never treat this issue as a wink-wink situation,” Larsen said “It is illegal and will remain illegal until Kansas does something different in Topeka. The intent is never to confuse anybody about it. Will it happen, though? We are all human.”

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.

Foreseeing marijuana legalization in Kansas, DA concerned about effect on violent crime

Longtime marijuana policy reform advocate reflects on years of change

‘I haven’t heard a word’: Republican state lawmakers unaware of Lawrence’s action on marijuana ordinance

Experts explain the health effects of marijuana use

Town Talk: Lawrence’s marijuana experiment and the questions it creates


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