WICHITA, Kan. — The highest court in Kansas is expected to rule Friday whether a Wichita ordinance that reduces penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal, in a decision that could spur activists in other communities to seek local votes if the law is allowed to stand.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked the court to strike down the ordinance in the state’s largest city, saying it conflicts with state law.
Schmidt’s office warned the city before the April election that the ordinance was in conflict with state law and that it couldn’t be enforced. The state filed a lawsuit soon after 54 percent of Wichita voters approved the measure anyway.
The Supreme Court earlier put the measure on hold while it considered its legality.
The ordinance imposes a fine of no more than $50 for someone 21 or older convicted for the first time of possessing 32 grams or less of marijuana — enough for several dozen joints — or related drug paraphernalia. State law punishes the same crimes with up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
Wichita’s city council has said it respects the attorney general’s opinion, but put the measure on the ballot because it also respects the right of residents to seek a public vote. It noted that backers gathered the 3,000 signatures.
Kansas law has no provision for statewide ballot initiatives and the Legislature has repeatedly rejected efforts in the past to liberalize marijuana laws in the state — leaving supporters with few options to reform them. The issue has surfaced again in this legislative session.
The Kansas Senate’s Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee heard this week from supporters and opponents of a proposed bill that would soften criminal penalties for marijuana possession, allow for hemp oil to treat seizures and promote industrial hemp research.
One of the activists who led the initiative, Esau Freeman, has said his group has spoken with people in Salina, Hutchinson, Topeka, Emporia and smaller Kansas communities who are interested in doing something similar.
Schmidt has argued that the road to changing the requirements of state law runs through the Kansas Legislature, not city hall.