A coalition of local groups in Wichita, Kansas claims to have enough signatures to put a measure decriminalizing marijuana on the November ballot.
The Peace and Social Justice Center, Kansas for Change and The Community Voice — a newspaper that focuses on Wichita’s African-American community — have collected approximately 5,500 signatures, almost double the number required to have a measure put on the ballot. If voters approved it, it would lessen the severity of first offense possession penalties, the maximum of which are currently at $2,500 and 1 year in jail.
“We want to change that to a civil fine, where you pay $25. You wouldn’t have the jail, the court, the lawyer fee, the criminal record,” Janice Bradley of the Peace and Social Justice Center told KWCH.
Kansas Representative Gail Finney, a Democrat based in Wichita, has been out collecting signatures. “I just think we can be spending our tax money better, to bring in jobs and better businesses and get a reliable water source and more buses and put money into our roads,” she told Kansas First News.
Changing the city code won’t have any effect on state and federal drug laws, but the coalition collecting the signatures believes that a successful ballot initiative in the state’s largest city could force the state’s hand. At the very least, they believe, it could convince Wichita police that enforcing state drug laws is not worth the effort.
Wichita Council member Jeff Blubaugh said that he believes this could free up police resources, allowing departments to focus on more dangerous and violent crimes. “We’ve got so many other things we need to put resources in, other than locking people up for marijuana,” he said.
Bradley, of the Peace and Social Justice Center, agreed, tellingThe Wichita Eagle that when they were out collecting signatures last weekend, “the policemen gave us a thumbs-up. I think they want to change their relationship with the populace and this is one of the ways they can do that.”
Another member of the signature-collecting coalition, Bonita Gooch, editor of The Community Voice, wrote an editorial supportive of the measure in which she highlighted the racial angle to the decriminalization effort. “The facts show in Wichita, KS, people of color are disproportionately targeted and charged for simple possession,” she wrote.
“The impact of this profiling begins to really show up on the back side of the arrest since so many people of color don’t have the money or resources needed to bail out of jail, nor can they afford a fancy attorney to help them get the charges dropped or set aside.”
According to police records, Wichita officers arrest between 1,800 and 1,900 per year for simple possession charges, and the majority of those arrested are African-American.
A similar decriminalization measure was passed in the District of Columbia earlier this year, but House Republicans who control the District’s budget have been attempting to undermine it. Unlike DC — which has a special legal status as a district unbound to a particular state — Wichita would have to contend with conflicting state laws.
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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