Kansas City Votes To Reduce Penalties For Pot Possession

By Paul Gaita 04/07/17

On Tuesday, voters approved a measure to eliminate the possibility of jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Close-up of person holding rolled joint.

Voters in Kansas City, Missouri went to the polls on April 4th to weigh in on five ballot initiatives as part of the municipal elections—including Question 5, which sought to reduce criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

Nearly 75% of voters approved the measure, amending the current Missouri law that deems possession of up to 10 grams a misdemeanor and possession of up to 35 grams (or 1.25 ounces) a felony punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Under Question 5, individuals caught with the latter amount will be required to pay a $25 fine and face no jail time.

The vote echoes similar ordinances passed in other Missouri cities, including St. Louis and Columbia, as well as a statewide law passed in January 2017, which eliminated jail time for first-time offenders caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana.

The vote drew praise from marijuana reform advocates, who helped to put the initiative on the ballot. "The era of reefer madness in Kansas City has come to an end," wrote Jamie Kacz, executive director of KC NORML. "No longer will otherwise law-abiding citizens be targeted or arrested for the mere possession of marijuana."

But the win also underscored efforts to address disparities in the way law enforcement has handled marijuana-related issues. In 2015, more than 1,000 people were arrested in Kansas City for marijuana-related offenses, and more than half of that number was comprised of individuals under the age of 28. Convictions for such non-violent crimes can have long-term detrimental effects on employment and educational opportunities.

Reports from both the Kansas City Star and the ACLU also found that people of color were more frequently charged with marijuana offenses. In 2016, 70% of all marijuana defendants in the city's courts were black, despite the fact that only 30% of the city's residents were of that race.

"The passage of this initiative is not just a victory for the people of Kansas City, but for the democratic process," said Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML. "The overwhelming majority of Americans want to end our nation's war on marijuana consumers, and politicians across the country should take heed of the message voters sent in Missouri: if you don't reform our marijuana laws through the legislature, we the people will do it for you."

One concern regarding the implementation of Question 5 remained after the April 4th vote: removing the jail time penalty from marijuana possession charges could also make defendants ineligible to receive a pro bono defense currently available through Legal Aid of Western Missouri. City courts require defendants to have an attorney in order to receive a diversion agreement or for plea bargains.

Kacz said KC NORML is working on organizing attorneys to help with such cases, and added that the city could also amend its arrangement with Legal Aid. "It's within the power of the city to do that," she noted. "They should go ahead."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.