On Apr. 4, voters in Kansas City, Mo. approved a measure to decriminalize possession of marijuana. The new law, which made the ballot thanks to a campaign by NORML KC, reduces the maximum penalty for having less than 35 grams of pot to a $25 fine. Previously, possession was a misdemeanor; those who were arrested faced up to a $500 fine and 180 days in jail.
One complication, however, is that without the possibility of jail time, defendants will no longer be eligible to get Legal Aid lawyersSome local lawmakers criticized the initiative,“This does not solve anything,” City Councilwoman Alissia Canada told the Kansas City Star. “It just creates more problems for people who don’t have any money and are already overburdened by the criminal justice system.”
Last year, nearly 70% of defendants in possession cases were African-American, according to an analysis of court data by the Kansas City Star. Only about 30% of the city’s 450,000 residents are African-American.
NORML KC executive director Jamie Kacz described the measure as a “baby step,” and said the organization was working on assembling a network of attorneys for those who are now ineligible for Legal Aid representation.
Elsewhere, Harris Country, Texas District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Feb. 16 that her office would no longer prosecute cases with possession of less than four ounces of marijuana as a criminal offense. “We’ve spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ogg explained, much to the dismay of some state officials. Harris County, which includes Houston and its suburbs, is the nation’s third-largest county with 4.r million residents.
By Mar. 17, 178 individuals agreed to take a drug education class rather than go to jail on possession offenses. Ogg’s office is also leading the nation when it comes to exonerating defendants who are wrongly convicted of drug offenses.
Elsewhere, conservative state officials have been actively going after city-level decriminalization measures. Both Nashville and Memphis, Tenn. passed city-level decriminalization ordinances last fall. Though the laws leave much to be desired, the state House recently approved a bill that seeks to nullify those city-level laws.
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