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Wichita decriminalizes fentanyl test strips, ditches city charges for marijuana possession

Glass water pipes on a shelf.
Nomin Ujiyediin
/
Kansas News Service

Those in favor of the ordinance said the current system through the city’s municipal courts negatively impacted younger people caught with marijuana, and could hurt their future employment opportunities.

The Wichita City Council passed a city ordinance that decriminalizes the possession of fentanyl test strips and removes the city’s municipal courts from charging people with possessing marijuana.

While no one has been arrested for possessing fentanyl test strips by Wichita police officers, more than 750 cases go through the city’s courts annually for marijuana possession — adding to the caseload for the Sedgwick County district attorney’s office.

“If the goal here is to reduce the impact on the citizens, there will be someone who will just actually get a complete pass because I can’t eat... can’t take on… 750 cases,” Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said. “Whether that’s a good or bad thing, you get to decide.”

Bennett wouldn’t take an official stance on whether he would charge individuals with possession, but he said his office is more focused on violent crime.

“I have 125 cases right now set for trial on homicide level charges,” Bennett said. “That’s where my attention is right now.”

Those in favor of the ordinance said the current system through the city’s municipal courts negatively impacted younger people caught with marijuana and could hurt their future employment opportunities.

“If you go into our current system, you can pay a fee, and then … you're out the door, but you have a drug conviction,” Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said last week, “which means you'll never work for one of our top employers in the city; you'll never work even for the city.”

According to data provided to the city council, the majority of people who went through the municipal courts with marijuana possession were also people of color.

Some who spoke in public comment, including SEIU President Esau Freeman, also spoke out against the city’s current system for handling marijuana possession charges.

“Anecdotally I've seen too many friends who have found themselves in those positions of homelessness and in those positions of additional substance abuse,” Freeman said, “because the real gateway isn't the substance itself. It's the overreach of government in their own lives.”

The ordinance also removed fentanyl test strips from being defined as drug paraphernalia.

That comes as Sedgwick County is seeing a record number of overdose deaths. Sedgwick County recorded more than 200 overdose deaths in 2021 compared to 162 in 2020, according to the Regional Forensic Science Center.

“This is something that we need to give the people in the community who are trying to actually help people who are addicted, the tools to help other people in our community,” council member Mike Hoheisel said.

Council members Bryan Frye and Becky Tuttle were the only no votes against the ordinance. Both said they supported decriminalizing test strips, but wanted more public input before voting on the combined ordinance with marijuana possession.


Copyright 2022 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron or email her at cameron (at) kmuw (dot) org.
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