Indigent Marijuana Defendants Will Be Covered Under Amended Contract Between Kansas City and Legal Aid of Western Missouri

15167619_606981862846104_8187971922597102036_oOn April 4, 2017, Kansas City residents decriminalized marijuana possession with an amazing 75% of voters supporting that move. The Initiative was led by NORML KC, the Kansas City Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The Petition decriminalized marijuana possession by eliminating arrests, eliminating the possibility of jail as a sentence, and requiring almost all such cases to be handled in municipal court which does not result in a criminal conviction. The previous range of punishment was up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. The new maximum fine is $25.

Prior to the election in April, certain public officials claimed they were concerned about the welfare of indigent marijuana defendants who would no longer be eligible for free legal services under the City’s contract with Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMO). Supporters of the Initiative pointed out that this problem could easily be fixed by amending the City’s contract with LAWMO. Now, that has happened.

The previous KC/LAWMO contract limited free legal services to indigent defendants charged with offenses which carry possible jail sentences. The new amendment specifically allows for LAWMO to represent indigent defendants facing marijuana possession charges.

According to The Kansas City Star, April 4, 2017, LAWMO represented defendants in about 59% of municipal marijuana cases during the past fiscal year.  The Star reported that approximately 70% of marijuana defendants are black, in a city where the population is only 30% black.  Studies consistently show that marijuana use rates are virtually the same between black and white Americans.

“NORML KC is pleased that the City has chosen to do the right thing in protecting its most vulnerable population by amending the contract with LAWMO,” said Jamie Kacz, Executive Director of NORML KC. “Prosecuting non-violent cannabis offenses should not be a priority in our city when over half of the nation has some form of safe and legal access.”

Attorney Dan Viets, Missouri NORML Coordinator and a member of the national NORML Board of Directors, said that the voters of Kansas City spoke loudly and clearly in getting the Initiative a landslide victory. “It was incredible that with no funding and only a small group of volunteers supporting the effort, this Initiative passed with the support of 75% of the voters!”

Further reform efforts are underway statewide. The New Approach Medical Cannabis Initiative campaign intends to place a measure legalizing medical cannabis on the November 2018 Missouri ballot. Missouri NORML Chapters, including NORML KC, are an important part of the coalition which is supporting this measure. The Initiative would provide funding for veterans’ services and regulate cultivation, processing and dispensing of cannabis to patients whose doctors have recommended such use. The campaign has gathered more than 125,000 signatures.  Nearly 170,000 valid signatures will be required to qualify for the ballot.