What’s the matter with Kansas? When it comes to cannabis, let’s start with the obvious: it’s a prohibitionist state that doesn’t permit statewide ballot measures as a change vehicle, and its strongly conservative legislature has rejected past efforts to make its marijuana laws more progressive.
Reformers have had to get creative. Last April in Wichita, the state’s largest city, pro-cannabis activists passed a local ballot measure in conflict with state law. Whereas the state’s first-time penalty for cannabis possession is up to $2,500 and a year in jail, a majority of Wichita voters chose $50 as the maximum penalty for adults charged for the first-time with possession of 32 grams of cannabis or less.
Although the voter-passed ordinance in question was a very modest reform whose supporters hoped would help some job-seekers avoid the heavy stigma and entry barriers associated with a criminal record from one-time convictions over minor possession, the state nevertheless sued.
Friday, in a victory for prohibitionists, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the Wichita ordinance approved nine months ago by 54 percent of voters.
The catch? The court didn’t strike it down on the merits, but over improper filing procedure with the Wichita city clerk. Thus, it means other Kansas cities where voters might support decriminalization at the local level don’t have guidance as to whether a similar measure that conflicted with state law could be upheld.
That’s unfortunate, says National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ legal counsel Keith Stroup, comparing the success similarly conservative states have had at least allowing localities to experiment with decriminalization.
In those states, he told Cannabis Now, “individual cities have decided it’s smart policy for them to move forward and stop arresting minor marijuana offenders within their boundaries.” In turn, this lets state legislators see “how these more lenient marijuana laws work in practice, and to better evaluate that option as a state policy.”
Indeed, Justice Dan Biles concurred with the majority but expressed dissent with its “choice to evade” the substantive issue.
“These citizens and public officials deserved prompt and final determinations from the highest court in this state instead of being left to wonder what happens if they do it all over again,” he wrote.
While it could not possibly have meant clarity on the merits of the case, which were deliberately left unclear by the court, the city of Wichita released a statement saying the ruling “provides clarity for all cities receiving such petitions” and indicating there was no further action to take at this point.
“Kansas should learn from the overwhelmingly favorable experience of their neighbors in Colorado,” said Stroup.
Esau Freeman, an activist who led the Wichita initiative, agreed.
“We’ve had two years since Colorado” legalized and regulated marijuana, Freeman told the Wichita Eagle. “There’s been all kinds of great changes. They’ve got plenty of money. Maybe Governor Brownback should contact us and hear our ideas.”
Although Freeman described his reaction as “bittersweet” and “disappointed” that the court chose not to rule on a technicality, he said he’s “optimistic” the city of Wichita is wrong about the ruling representing a dead end. He hopes the city will enact a charter ordinance to reflect “the will of the people.”
While the laws in Kansas are more regressive regarding cannabis than in many other states, that doesn’t prevent its citizens from seeing the clear trajectory of reform nationwide.
“In my opinion, this is going to pass at a federal level before Kansas even gets its shoes on for the race,” speculated Freeman.
Was the Kansas Supreme Court wrong? Should they uphold the will of the voters in Wichita to decriminalize cannabis? Tell us what you think.