Updated Jan. 22, 2016 at 2:31 p.m.
TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday struck down a voter-approved ordinance in Wichita that reduced penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
The case has been closely watched by activists in other Kansas communities who are considering similar voter-led initiatives if state lawmakers continue to block reform of marijuana laws. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt had asked the Supreme Court to strike down the ordinance in the state’s largest city, saying it conflicts with state law.
Schmidt’s office warned the city before the April election that the ordinance was in conflict with state law and that it couldn’t be enforced. The state filed a lawsuit soon after 54 percent of Wichita voters approved the measure anyway.
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In its decision Friday, the state Supreme Court said the ordinance wasn’t enacted according to state law. The court said that when the petition was filed with the city clerk’s office, it didn’t also include a copy of the proposed ordinance. The Supreme Court also said its ruling “effectively disposes of the case,” and it therefore didn’t need to rule on the state’s other arguments against the ordinance.
The City of Wichita released a statement saying it respected the court’s decision and that the ruling “provides clarity for all cities receiving such petitions.” The city also said there’s no action for the city to take, given that the Supreme Court had put the ordinance on hold while it considered the case.
Schmidt’s office said in an emailed statement the court decision’s “narrow scope” doesn’t address whether state law would have invalidated a properly enacted ordinance. Schmidt said he wants lawmakers to review the matter and decide if the Legislature needs to make “crystal clear” its intent to have “these law enforcement standards, policies and procedures uniform throughout the state.”
“Whatever one’s views on the merits of current state policy related to marijuana, I think most Kansans agree it makes little sense for the basic rules for enforcing the criminal law to differ from city to city,” Schmidt said.
One of the activists who led the initiative, Esau Freeman, said Friday that the court ruled against the measure on a technicality, “and I think that really allowed them not to rule on the meat of the case.”
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Freeman said he would like the City Council take the issue up again “since we did get 54 percent of the vote.” He also said the ordinance was publicly displayed on the group’s website and was available “to God and anybody who wanted to get on a computer at the public library.”
The ordinance would have imposed a fine of no more than $50 for someone 21 or older convicted for the first time of possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana — enough for several dozen joints — or related drug paraphernalia. State law punishes the same crimes with up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
Wichita’s City Council had said it respected the attorney general’s opinion, but that it put the measure on the ballot because it also respects the rights of its residents to seek a public vote. It noted that backers gathered the needed 3,000 signatures.
Kansas law has no provision for statewide ballot initiatives and the Legislature has repeatedly rejected efforts in the past to liberalize marijuana laws in the state — leaving supporters with few options to reform them. The issue has surfaced again in this legislative session.
The Kansas Senate’s Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee heard this week from supporters and opponents of a proposed bill that would soften criminal penalties for marijuana possession, allow for hemp oil to treat seizures and promote industrial hemp research.
Freeman has said his group spoke with people in Salina, Hutchinson, Topeka, Emporia and smaller Kansas communities who are interested in doing something similar.
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