City gives initial OK on marijuana ordinance

The city will be far more forgiving to first-time marijuana offenders under an ordinance approved Tuesday.

The Wichita City Council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance providing more lenient penalties for first-time offenders.

The ordinance is still preliminary, and the council will vote on it again at a later date.

The details of the ordinance:

▪ Wichita police, absent any other state or federal warrant, will not arrest offenders simply for having marijuana – instead, they will be given a notice to appear in municipal court, much like receiving a parking ticket.

▪ The presumptive sentence for a first-time offense will be $50, and first-time offenders will not be obligated to complete drug-related counseling if they are over 21 years old. The court still has the discretion to impose a maximum fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail – reduced from the previous penalty of $2,500 and up to one year in jail. A second marijuana conviction will come with a fine not to exceed $2,500 and one year in jail.

▪ To bring the city into compliance with state law, offenders who are required to complete drug testing at the Regional Forensic Science Center (typically in cases that go to trial) are required to pay the associated laboratory fees, which typically cost about $400.

▪ The presumptive sentence will not apply to those who have been convicted of a felony in the past five years, been convicted of a Class A misdemeanor in the past three years, who have been convicted of marijuana possession at least once in the past three years, or who were arrested on suspicion of any felony, criminal misdemeanor or DUI offense in conjunction with the alleged marijuana offense.

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The Municipal Court, which collects approximately $30,000 a year for these violations, would lose about $20,000 of that revenue per year, according to the city.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said the discussions, which began after Wichitans voted in favor of more lenient penalties in the 2015 general city election, have been “challenging to work our way through.”

“At the end of the day, we’re toeing the line regarding legalities,” Longwell said. “We’re pushing the envelope about as far as we can push the envelope on this. It’s not, at this point, in any way decriminalizing.”

Wichita’s vote to decrease marijuana penalties in 2015 was immediately challenged by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, and in early 2016, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the results of the election were invalid because of a technicality in the petition-gathering process.

Doug Ballard, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, said the council’s decision was a victory, albeit not as far-reaching as marijuana advocates might have wanted.

“I could give you a long lecture of what we don’t like about it – we are continuing to work on this issue,” he said. “There are just so many things on this subject matter that we’re missing out on. We’ve actually compromised. I tell people this is the biggest bite that we think we can take right now, because we are in Kansas. I don’t need to tell you about Topeka.”

Council member Lavonta Williams commended those that have been working on the ordinance.

“It’s a first step, and we probably took a giant leap as we work with Topeka,” she said. “I think we’re coming as close as we can to what’s legal without knocking the door down.

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“Many, many lives have already been ruined for just small amounts of marijuana, and in many cases it has shown them the inside of a prison – that should not have happened.”

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