- Associated Press - Thursday, September 17, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A top Kansas prosecutor on Thursday asked the state’s Supreme Court to look past flaws in the petition process that led to a Wichita marijuana ordinance and focus instead on whether the city has the right to craft its own pot laws.

Voters in Wichita, the largest city in Kansas, approved the ordinance in April and it imposes no more than a $50 fine for first-time possession of a small amount of pot by people who are at least 21 years old. State law sets a maximum punishment of a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office warned the city before the 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 City Council 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, noting backers gathered the 3,000 signatures necessary to call one.

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

Deputy Chief Attorney General Jeff Chanay told the justices Thursday that problems in the petition process should be enough to have the ordinance thrown out, but he asked them to instead focus on whether the ordinance conflicts with state law.

Otherwise, he said, ordinance supporters could fix the technical issues with the petition effort and again approve a measure that violates state law.

Sharon Dickgrafe, deputy city attorney for Wichita, acknowledged parts of the ordinance probably do conflict with state law, but said that is not a good enough reason to toss it.

She noted that the ordinance establishes a maximum penalty for first-time, small-time pot possession that falls within the range of marijuana penalties allowed under state law. The measure neither decriminalizes nor legalizes marijuana possession, she said.

The case is being closely watched by marijuana advocates hoping to reform pot laws in other communities across the state.

One of the activists who led the Wichita 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.

“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 to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The justices took no action on the ordinance.

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