- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 16, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The state Supreme Court is preparing to hear oral arguments Thursday about the legality of a Wichita ordinance that lessens the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, a case that could shake up the political landscape as citizens in other Kansas communities consider similar voter-led initiatives.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is asking the court to strike down the ordinance, saying it conflicts with state law. Wichita voters approved the ordinance in April, with 54 percent in favor of the measure.

One of the activists who led the initiative, Esau Freeman, said his group has spoken with people in Salina, Hutchinson, Topeka, Emporia and smaller Kansas communities who are interested in doing something similar.

Kansas law has no provision for statewide ballot initiatives. But if the state Supreme Court upholds Wichita’s local ballot measure, Freeman contends it “will empower the citizens within those other communities with the tools to run citizen-led ballot initiatives on the local level and will make this part of the 2016 election season.”

He said he has talked to several candidates who plan to run for the state Legislature and would be willing to help push these ballot initiatives in their communities. Freeman said those individuals want to make the reform of marijuana laws an issue in the 2016 Kansas elections so people can vote on it and “if nothing else, send a message to our lawmakers in Topeka that we the people of Kansas are ready for sensible cannabis reform.”

Besides considering whether the Wichita ordinance conflicts with state law, the state Supreme Court will look at whether the measure was filed properly.

The ordinance imposes no more than a $50 fine for first-time possession of a small amount of pot, while state law deems it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Even before the vote on the measure, Schmidt had warned it would conflict with state law. After it passed, he took the issue directly to the state’s highest court - arguing that the longer the ordinance stands without a determination of its validity, the more confusion it will cause.

“On this subject like many others, the road to changing requirements of state law runs through the Kansas legislature, not city hall,” Schmidt said in a statement emailed Wednesday to The Associated Press.

The Supreme Court has put the ordinance on hold while it considers its legality.

“The ultimate question is whether the initiative is in conflict with state law, and as I understand the initiative it doesn’t purport to nullify the state’s drug laws,” said Richard Levy, a University of Kansas law professor. “The state would still be able to prosecute under state laws if it wants to. It is only a question of local enforcement efforts.”

Levy likened the Wichita measure to the initiative passed in Colorado, where voters legalized marijuana under state law despite federal laws that make possession and sale of marijuana a crime. Colorado’s law doesn’t undo those federal laws. It simply says that Colorado would not enforce any criminal sanctions against use or sale that comply with state law.

“If the same pattern is present here and Wichita is simply saying, ‘We are not going to enforce local drug laws with prosecution,’ then I think it might be OK,” Levy said. “On the other hand, I think probably the local officials cannot refuse to enforce state law, so that will be the question.”

He said if there is a conflict between the Wichita ordinance and state law, then state law prevails.

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