The Lawrence, Kansas, city commission Tuesday passed a new ordinance allowing first-time marijuana possession cases to be tried in municipal court instead of state court. The measure means University of Kansas students busted for pot will not be denied federal financial aid under the Higher Education Act's drug provision because municipal court convictions are not included in the federal statute.
But city commissioners threw something of a curve ball at reform proponents by amending the measure to impose a $200 minimum fine and a mandatory $100 "evaluation" fee on unlucky marijuana users. That means marijuana offenders are likely to end up paying substantially more than they would if tried in the state district court system, where, according to the Lawrence Journal-World, fines generally range from $25 to $100.
The law was approved after the Drug Policy Forum of Kansas called on the city to draft a municipal ordinance, but the forum was not exactly thrilled at the way things turned out. "I think the fine is too high," said Laura Green, executive director of the forum. "I'm opposed to the fees because I think this is more of a public health issue."
She was joined in criticizing the fines by City Commissioner Mike Rundle and Mayor Boog Highberger, with Rundle calling marijuana use "a victimless crime." Highberger added that most marijuana smokers "don't have any trouble with it. I'm not hearing any justification for a stiffer fine."
But Rundle and Highberger were on the short end of a 3-2 vote. While the remaining commissioners were okay with drafting the municipal law, they still wanted their pound of flesh from pot people. "This is just a line I have to draw," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "I don't think $100 is significant enough to discourage people."
Green told the News the forum could live with the law because it would protect students from losing federal financial aid, but the group will be monitoring how the ordinance is implemented. "If it becomes a revenue-generating source for the city, with traps that are set up to catch people, we will be back to talk to the commission about that," Green said.