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Citing Racial Disparities, Kansas City Council Votes to Stop Prosecuting Marijuana Possession

Dank Depot
Flickr - CC
Missouri voters approved medical marijuana in 2018.

Black people in Kansas City are more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges. City officials say removing marijuana possession as a city violation is a step forward for racial justice.

Kansas City residents will no longer face municipal charges for marijuana possession.

The Kansas City Council voted 9-4 Thursday to remove possession or control of marijuana from the code of ordinances, meaning it won’t be prosecuted at the municipal level.

Missouri voters statewide overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana in 2018.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said criminalizing marijuana possession unfairly targets low-income communities and people of color.

“We’re saying marijuana is in essence OK for some but not for others. It is criminalizing a class of some, but not others. And I think this is really just fundamentally a question of fairness,” Lucas said.

Lucas, as well as council members Melissa Robinson, Brandon Ellington, Lee Barnes, Ryana Parks-Shaw, Eric Bunch, Andrea Bough, Kevin McManus and Teresa Loar voted in favor of the ordinance. Heather Hall, Kevin O’Neill, Dan Fowler and Katheryn Shields voted “no.”

The ordinance does not legalize marijuana under state or federal law or prevent county law enforcement from prosecuting more serious marijuana offenses.

Several city council members say it’s a step toward racial justice. According to the mayor’s office, in 2017 and 2018, African Americans comprised over 60% of the marijuana arrests in Kansas City although they are less than 30% of the city’s population.

Lucas recalled his own experiences growing up, watching his sisters' peers get arrested for marijuana violations and deal with the lingering consequences of those charges for years. Lucas' sisters both attended Kansas City Public Schools,

Unlike his sisters, Lucas attended a majority-white private school, where he said he also knew people who used marijuana.

“None of whom ever ran into the negative incidents of the criminal justice system. None of whom ran into all those sorts of things that I think show the disproportionate impact we’ve had in drug policy and force in our city, in our state and (in) our country,” he said.

Final step in reducing marijuana penalties

The move Thursday follows a progression in Kansas City over the past few years of lowering cannabis penalties. In 2017, Kansas City residents voted to reduce the penalty for pot possession to $25 and eliminated the possibility of jail time.

Wayne Smith, managing attorney of the municipal court unit with Legal Aid of Western Missouri, said his office has handled far fewer possession cases since 2017.

“I don’t think a lot of marijuana tickets were being issued during this time,” Smith said.

Kansas City Police Deputy Chief Karl Oakman told the city council earlier Thursday that pursuing city marijuana charges was not a priority for the department.

Still, paying the $25 fine meant having a violation on your record — which could potentially show up on job or scholarship applications or affect the severity of future sentences.

In February, Lucas launched a process to pardon cannabis-related convictions.

Thursday’s vote advances his efforts by removing marijuana possession as a violation altogether.

Worries over unintended consequences

Still, the move will not eliminate pot-related offenses in all parts of the city.

While Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters-Baker has said she won’t prosecute minor marijuana possession violations, that’s has not always been the case in Platte, Cass and Clay counties. Which means Kansas Citians can still be charged by county law enforcement.

First District Councilwoman Heather Hall said marijuana reform should come from the state, not individual municipalities.

“If Kansas City were an island this would not be a problem. But we’re not an island,” Hall said. “Not only do we have four counties, which we have to deal with laws of every county, we probably have 20 cities that touch up against us.”

Lucas said a vast majority of municipal tickets for marijuana occur in Jackson County. Plus, he said prosecutors in Platte, Cass and Clay counties indicated to him that going after misdemeanor marijuana charges was not a priority.

The change will take effect in 10 days.

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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