WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Some Wichita marijuana advocates think they have enough petition signatures to force a citywide vote on changing the municipal code to decriminalize pot.
The petition, if passed, would change possession of marijuana or related paraphernalia from a criminal offense to a civil matter that carries a $25 fine, far less than the current maximum of $2,500 and a year in jail.
Petition organizers believe marijuana possession laws are a gateway into the criminal justice system for young people, especially blacks, The Wichita Eagle reported. Advocates say small-time pot convictions create thousands of criminal records that can stifle employment and educational opportunities.
“I just think we can be spending our tax money better, to bring in jobs and better businesses and get a reliable water source and more buses and put money into our roads,” said Kansas Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat who signed the petition and has been collecting signatures.
Finney — who periodically undergoes chemotherapy for lupus — has tried unsuccessfully for years to get the Legislature to vote on a bill she wrote to legalize medical use of marijuana.
Petition organizers have started the process of checking thousands of signatures to make sure they have enough. The group hopes to turn in the petitions later this month to meet the deadline for including the initiative on the November general election ballot.
Changing the city’s code won’t change state and federal laws that could still be enforced against marijuana users, and there’s no provision in state law for citizens to bring a measure to a statewide vote without approval from the Legislature.
But a successful petition drive could send a powerful message to lawmakers if the state’s largest city votes to decriminalize the drug.
If the city decriminalizes pot, the petitioners say, they think local police will decide it’s not worth the effort to arrest small-time users.
If the petitioners gather the 2,928 valid signatures they need, the City Council will have 20 days to decide whether to adopt the initiative as a city ordinance or put it to a public vote within 90 days.
All five council members who attended an agenda review meeting Thursday said voters should decide whether to decriminalize marijuana.
Council member Jeff Blubaugh said the change would allow police to focus more on dangerous and violent criminals and help the beleaguered city budget.
“We’ve got so many other things we need to put resources in, other than locking people up for marijuana,” he said.
City Attorney Gary Revenstorf said he hasn’t seen the petition and he’s not sure if Wichita’s home-rule powers give it the authority to downgrade marijuana possession from a criminal to a civil matter.
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