Marijuana: Lawrence, Kansas, Ponders City Marijuana Ordinance -- Impact of HEA Cited 8/26/05

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A proposal to move small-time marijuana possession offenses out of district court and into city court in the college of town of Lawrence, Kansas, is winning initial support from the mayor and other elected officials. The support comes at least in part because of the dire financial aid ramifications of even a simple pot possession bust for college students under the drug provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA). That law, authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), bars people with drug convictions from receiving financial aid for college for specified periods of time.

The proposal is the work of the newly formed Drug Policy Forum of Kansas, whose executive director, Laura Green, last week wrote a letter to city commissioners asking them to consider drafting an ordinance that would move simple possession and paraphernalia charges to city court and make marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. If the commission adopts the move, offenders would be cited instead of arrested, their cases would be handled by city court, and convictions would not count under the HEA guidelines. The commission expects to discuss the issue at its September 6 meeting.

The notion of de-prioritizing small-time marijuana law enforcement is one that has already caught on the college town of Columbia, Missouri, as well as the cities of Seattle and Oakland.

"We're not proposing legalization," Green told the Lawrence Sentinel-Journal Tuesday. "I'm just asking them to consider making it part of the city code... Part of what I'm asking them to do is to make possession of marijuana a low priority. Don't seek it out. Don't go looking for it as if it's the Holy Grail."

The move would save money and it would help students, Green argued. "I don't want to see a young person denied the opportunity to go to college because they made a mistake," she said.

That's an argument that resonated with Mayor Boog Highberger, who thought students who get arrested for marijuana are punished enough. "I wouldn't bar a student from getting financial aid," Highberger said. "That's appropriate because I think that would be a pretty harsh penalty for getting caught with a little pot." Highberger also brushed aside suggestions from the University of Kansas that the anti-drug provision would not apply to many Kansas students. "How do they really know?" he scoffed. "How many students aren't applying at all because they know they won't get anything?"

The local district attorney also expressed provisional support for the idea, but support was by no means unanimous. Commissioner Mike Amyx told the Ledger-Journal we wasn't going to vote for anything that would lessen marijuana penalties. "I would never think of doing that," he said. Nor was he interested in making pot a lesser law enforcement priority. "I don't think those are my feelings at all. It is a crime, and that is what we do. We carry out laws... It is not something where you pass a law and then just wink at it," he said.

It's not a shoo-in by any means, but the de-prioritization movement has spread to Lawrence. Check back after the September commission meeting.

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Issue #401 -- 8/26/05

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