TOPEKA (KSNT) – A voter-led initiative to lessen the penalties for first time marijuana offenders is now being scrutinized by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Wichita voters approved that measure in April, but the state says it violates Kansas law.
The question it raises is how much power should individual cities have to modify penalties that have already been set by state law?
Some voters argue that power should be with the people.
“The people’s voices have come out. They’ve told the state that we would like to see these changes,” said Esau Freeman, an organizer of the voter initiative.
However a number of technical problems might stand in the way of that.
When Freeman’s organization submitted petitions to the Wichita City Council, a copy of a proposed ordinance to lessen the penalties for first time marijuana possession wasn’t included as state law requires.
“The folks who circulated this didn’t follow the law, didn’t come up with one official formal copy properly filed, and there are reasons those procedures are written in the statutes,” said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
“You know, we as citizens, we’re not lawyers, we’re not experts, we did the best we could to run a ballot lead initiative and you know quite honestly when you go to the city or the county and you ask for their legal staff for assistance they flat tell you, we’re not here to work for you, we’re here to work for the city,” said Freeman.
As glaring as those technical problems may be, the state surprisingly doesn’t want that to be the reason the court throws out the ordinance.
“Those procedural defects could be corrected and then when we would be right back before the court on the principal legal issues,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Chanay.
The state’s main concern is that Wichita’s new ordinance significantly reduces the penalties.
Right now the maximum fine is $2,500 and up to a year in jail.
Wichita’s ordinance changes that to $50 and no jail time for first time offenders.
The state thinks that limits current state law too much and could cause problems for law enforcement officers. The city says it’s what the people want.
“I think it’s in everybody’s interest if those questions get addressed and answered now so that we aren’t dragged back through this, the city’s not dragged back through it, the Wichita voters are not dragged back through it,” said Schmidt.
If this sounds hauntingly familiar to Topeka residents that’s because it echos the long legal fight when the city tried to buy Heartland Park.
A voter initiative challenged and eventually overturned by the courts – because a specifically worded ordinance wasn’t attached to the initiative.
The state Supreme Court likely won’t issue a decision on the matter for several months.
If they decide to throw out the ordinance on those legal technicalities, the petitioners say they plan to go back to the voters and start the process again.