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Kansas City Council Committee Recommends Marijuana Ordinance Go Before Voters In April

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Despite concerns, a resigned Kansas City Council committee today recommended the full council put a petition to reduce penalties for marijuana possession on the ballot this April. 

The recommendation came after Tuesday's Missouri Supreme court decision, which ordered the city to put a minimum wage petition — which had previously been declined by the council  for contradicting state law — on the ballot. 

The high court said that Kansas City's charter required all properly filed citizen's petition initiatives to be placed before voters. Any challenges to proposed ordinances can only be considered after voters adopt the measure. 

"This issue was brought to us by initiative petition, we have no choice about putting it on the ballot. Some of us support this action, some of us don't, but the council doesn't have a choice and so therefore it will be going on the ballot," Councilwoman Katheryn Shields told petitioners. "Its just a question of whether its April or August."

Under the proposed ordinance, if someone is caught with less than 35 grams of marijuana, they would get maximum fine of $25 and wouldn't be arrested. Current Missouri penalties for the same amount of marijuana include possible incarceration and fines up to $500. 

St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri, already have similar ordinances on the books. 

After hearing from petitioners, city health officials and the city prosecutor, several council members voiced strong reservations about the ordinance.

Shields warned people not to confuse this ordinance with marijuana legalization. If you get caught with 35 grams or less of marijuana, police will write you a ticket. 

"If you plead guilty to that ticket, because after all it's 25 bucks and you don't bother to hire a lawyer because that's more money, you're going to have a municipal court ordinance violation involving marijuana," Shields explained.

She said that violation on your record could have a negative impact on getting a job.  She also said if you get caught with 35 grams and an officer suspects intent to sell marijuana, that could still be filed as a state felony charge.

Additionally, if you're caught in the parts of Kansas City that are in Platte or Clay Counties, police could choose to take you to the Platte or Clay County prosecutors to seek state charges. 

Councilwoman Heather Hall worried that the ordinance in its current form could mislead people into thinking that marijuana is legalized.

Jamie Kacz, executive director for the Kansas City Branchof the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which led the efforts for the petition, says they want to provide the public with accurate information.

"We want to be as transparent as we can. We want to educate, that is one our main goals, so we do not want to misrepresent or give false information," Kacz says. 

Should the issue be place on the April ballot, she says NORML-KC would work until then to educate supporters on what the ordinance does — and does not — do. 

"This, in my opinion, is a little band-aid on a big wound," says Rianna Deselich, a community activist who was part of an effort to legalize medical marijuana in Missouri last year. 

Deselich says what's needed is statewide reform and this ordinance would do little to resolve issues for people who have multiple marijuana offenses. 

Kacz agrees, and she hopes they can get a medical marijuana bill on the ballot in 2018. Still, she hopes the council decided to place this issue before voters as soon as possible.

"It's all about baby steps," Kacz said. 

If Kansas City voters approve this measure she says, it can open the door to more candid conversations about statewide marijuana reform. 

The full council will vote on the ballot language on Thursday, the last day to approve issues for the April election. 

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and a reporter for KCUR 89.3 Connect with 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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