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Kansas City Leaders Warn Proposed Marijuana Ordinance May Be 'Too Good To Be True'

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More than half of states have legalized marijuana for either recreational or medical use.

Kansas City voters won’t be considering that exact question on April 4th, but they will get to decide whether to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession.

Question 5 reduces the fine for being caught with 35 grams or less of marijuana to $25 and eliminates the possibility to jail time. Current Missouri penalties for the same amount of marijuana include possible incarceration and fines up to $500. 

Columbia, Missouri, and St. Louis have passed similar ordinances.

To be clear, this measure would not legalize marijuana. But it does reduce the penalties for getting caught with small amounts.  

To get a picture of how much marijuana 35 grams is,  picture a gallon Ziploc bag about half full of marijuana buds. That’s roughly the amount of weed you could get caught with under the proposal and not face jail time.

Jamie Kacz is the executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which drafted the ordinance, and collected enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

She says the group’s main goals are to keep people out of jail for possession charges and to change people’s minds about marijuana.

“Truly the first step to removing the stigma associated with marijuana is decriminalization," Kacz says.

Council member Alissia Canady is concerned about the unintended legal consequences of passing such a measure. 

“The easiest way to describe it is if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Canady says.

Reducing marijuana penalties could have unintended legal consequences

Canady used to work as an assistant prosecutor at the Jackson County Prosecutor's office.

She worries that if people get caught and only face a $25 fine, they’ll just pay it. But that doesn’t mean the violation goes away.

“This is not a magic wand, it does not take away the impact of having a drug-related offense on your background check," Canady says. 

She says it could get in the way of getting a job, applying for housing, or getting a college scholarship.

But Dan Viets, a lawyer in Columbia who primarily defends people on marijuana charges, disagrees.

“It will appear on some public records, but I don’t think it makes much difference,” Viets says.

Viets helped draft Columbia’s ordinance and says a city violation — which is what paying the fine would amount to under the new measure — doesn’t carry the same weight as a state or federal charge. He says that’s an especially important distinction for students on federal financial aid.

“I've seen people who had to drop out of college for a misdemeanor marijuana conviction because they were made ineligible for federal student aid. Now that does not apply to cases under city ordinance.”

Drug convictions can cause a student to lose federal student aid. But federal guidelines are unclearabout whether a city ordinance violation counts. Viets says only state or federal charges put scholarships and grants in jeopardy. And most college websites agree.

One thing that is clear — for kids applying for financial aid for the first time, a drug conviction will not prevent them from getting it.

But it could be a different story when it comes to getting a job. A municipal violation will show up on some background checks.  It’s not a legal disqualification, but it could influence an employer to hire someone else.

“The best option for anyone would be to have a lawyer handle your drug-related offense to make sure you're fully aware of your options,” Canady says. 

She says attorneys can negotiate with prosecutors to keep drug charges from even going on your record.  

“Persons who are indigent may not be able to afford that themselves, so we have a relationship with legal aid where they represent clients like that in municipal court, but they have to be facing jail time to get that.”

Removing jail time means free legal aid would not be available for people with marijuana possession charges.

Evidence suggests relaxing marijuana laws doesn't increase use

Despite these possible pitfalls, Viets says overall the Columbia ordinance has been a good thing. Police get to focus their time and efforts on property and violent crimes, and more marijuana possession cases are referred to municipal courts, instead of state or county courts.

Furthermore, he says it’s lessened the fear that more relaxed marijuana laws leads to increased use. A fear expressed by councilwoman Heather Hall  during  public hearings. 

“That’s the fundamental fear I think that people have that, 'My gosh, if we don't threaten people with jail then more people will smoke marijuana.' That's a reasonable assumption but it turns out not to be true,” Viets says. 

A study released last year from the Colorado Department of Public Health shows that since the state legalized marijuana there has been no change in marijuana use among adults and adolescents and that frequency of use was also unchanged.

It also said that marijuana use among adolescents is the same as the national average. A lot of other studies back these findings, but most researchers agree it’s still too early to tell whether more relaxed marijuana legislation has any effect use.

Still, only one thing that would truly assuage Canady’s legal concerns.

“I would be more comfortable if we had certainty that marijuana would be legalized in this state. That's the only certainty.” 

That may be a long ways away, especially in Missouri.  Last year, petitioners and tried — and failed —to get enough signatures to put a medical marijuana on Missouri’s November ballot.

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and a reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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