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Kansas City Councilmembers Say Not Prosecuting Marijuana Charges Is A Step Forward For Racial Justice

Marijuana plants in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
There were 821 marijuana cases filed in municipal court last fiscal year and 326 convictions.

The director of policy in the mayor’s office testified that in 2017 and 2018, African Americans comprised over 60% of the marijuana arrests in Kansas City although they make up less than 30% of the city’s population.

Kansas City would no longer prosecute low-level marijuana possession cases at the municipal level, under a measure endorsed Wednesday by a City Council committee.

In a move that Mayor Quinton Lucas argued would promote racial equity and criminal justice reform, the Finance and Public Safety Committee voted 4-2 in favor of an ordinance to eliminate marijuana possession as a city code violation. The proposal goes to the full council on July 9.

“We see in studies that Black Americans, although having a similar percentage usage of marijuana as whites, are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses,” Lucas said in testimony to the committee. “At a time when we are trying to have fewer adverse encounters between a community and police, this could be a situation where we could actually remove those.”

Lucas said if people are stopped, there are still grounds for a search and the ordinance does not remove a police investigative tool. Nor does it legalize marijuana under state or federal law or prevent county prosecutors from prosecuting more serious marijuana offenses.

The measure was co-sponsored by Lucas and the other African Americans members of the council: Melissa Robinson, Lee Barnes, Brandon Ellington and Ryana Parks-Shaw.

Parks-Shaw, Barnes, Robinson and Kevin McManus supported the proposal. Heather Hall and Katheryn Shields were opposed. Lucas didn’t vote because he’s not on the committee.

A.J. Herrmann, director of policy in the mayor’s office, told the committee that in 2017 and 2018, African Americans comprised over 60% of the marijuana arrests in Kansas City although they make up less than 30% of the city’s population.

He said that in the last fiscal year that ended April 30, there were 821 marijuana cases filed in municipal court, with 326 convictions.

“It’s our belief that removing marijuana from the code entirely would keep low-level possession cases out of court and off the criminal records of casual users,” Herrmann said. “Marijuana enforcement can distract us from larger priorities. City law enforcement and court resources can be better focused on violent crimes and offenses.”

Hall, however, worried that the proposal would increase confusion among both police and the public. She asked how many of the 821 marijuana cases also involved other offenses. Herrmann said he would try to get that data.

Hall asked Lucas what would happen if an officer pulled over a motorist driving erratically and discovered he was smoking marijuana. Would he have to let the motorist go? Aand what if the motorist then killed someone?

Lucas noted that driving while under the influence of drugs is still a violation of the traffic code, just like driving under the influence of alcohol.

Hall worried about a “slippery slope” of relaxing too many laws. “I think it’s a very fine line,” she said.

Kansas City Police Capt. Scott Simons said the police department has its own concerns.

“Eliminating this charge within the municipal code is going to create a lot of public confusion,” he testified. He said suspects may get the impression that marijuana possession is now legal when in fact it could still be investigated under federal or state statutes. And he worried it would hinder rather than help police interactions with the community.

In joining Hall in voting against the measure, Shields said she favors decriminalizing marijuana but worries about the proposal’s unintended consequences.

While Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters-Baker has said she won’t prosecutor minor marijuana possession violations, that’s has not always been the case in Platte, Cass and Clay counties. Shields warned that offenders stopped in the parts of Kansas City that straddle those counties, especially minorities, could find themselves with more serious state violations, rather than simple municipal court fines.

“We are putting them in an area where they are actually going to suffer greater harm,” she said.

Robinson urged support for the measure.

“African Americans are disproportionately impacted by these laws,” Robinson said. “This is an opportunity to address racial injustices that are happening.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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