Voters in Kansas City voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to eliminate the possibility of jail time for people caught with small amounts of marijuana or related paraphernalia.
With nearly 75 percent of voters in favor of the initiative, the most populous city in Missouri strongly supported relaxing existing law. Currently, possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana can result in up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine. Under the new measure, people caught with small amounts of marijuana will instead have to pay a $25 fine and associated court fees. Although this would remove criminal penalties, defendants can still end up with drug charges on their records.
Marijuana advocates who helped gather signatures to get the initiative on the ballot hailed the vote as a victory.
“The era of reefer madness in Kansas City has come to an end, and no longer will otherwise law abiding citizens be targeted or arrested for the mere possession of marijuana,” stated Jamie Kacz, executive director of KC NORML.
Many also see the measure as a way to address lasting disparities in marijuana enforcement, which has disproportionately affected Kansas City’s black residents.
Although the city had a program to divert many low-level marijuana offenders away from incarceration, more than 1,000 people were arrested across the city for marijuana-related offenses in 2015, and more than half of them were under age 28, Kacz said in an interview last year.
In 2016, nearly 70 percent of all marijuana defendants in Kansas City were black, according to a report by the Kansas City Star, even though only around 30 percent of city residents are black and studies show that people of all races use the drug at about the same rate.
Some observers do worry that the new ordinance could have unintended consequences. Traditionally, people booked on marijuana possession could turn to the services of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, a group that provides free legal counsel to defendants who face jail time for their charges. With the option of jail now eliminated, however, they may no longer be eligible for a pro bono defense. On Tuesday, Kacz told the Star that she hopes the city will adjust its contract with Legal Aid to reflect the new arrangement.
Kansas City’s move follows a trend of marijuana reform at the state and local level, including in cities like St. Louis. A new statewide law took effect in Missouri earlier this year, removing the threat of jail time for first-time marijuana offenders caught with less than 10 grams of cannabis.