Prairie Village leaders continue debate over decriminalization of marijuana possession

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PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. —The debate on decriminalizing marijuana possession continues in Prairie Village. 

The council began discussions on decriminalization in January. After the meeting on May 3 the council directed city staff to collect additional information on the legality of decriminalizing the possession of marijuana.

Tuesday, city attorney David Waters walked the council through his legal research. 

With marijuana being illegal under both federal and state law, city staff presented city council members with information on current state law and reviewing policy from other cities, including Lawrence and Wichita. The council was also given information on options like removing marijuana possession from the city’s crime code or decreasing penalties for marijuana possession. 

“The city likely could, under its home rule authority, remove marijuana possession from the Uniform Public Offense Code (UPOC) as adopted by the city. That would not in and of itself make marijuana possession legal in Prairie Village. What it would do is result in violations being prosecuted in the district court,” Waters said.  

If approved, Prairie Village would be the first city in Johnson County to decriminalize marijuana possession. 

Councilmember Inga Selders said decriminalization would help address racial disparity. 

According to the ACLU, in Kansas, Black people are 4.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Some data suggests Black people in Johnson County are 8.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. The ACLU study shows a national average of approximately 3.6 times. 

“Until we change these laws and policies as we are discussing, we will always be working in a model built upon racism,” Selders said.

“This is why Black people here in Johnson County are still 8.4 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people. Even though usage amongst Black and white people is virtually the same.” 

Prairie Village Police Chief Byron Roberson said he doesn’t support decriminalization.  

“This will not make our city safer. I think, in fact, it will make your city more attractive to drug dealers and drug users,” Roberson said. 

Roberson said he’s worried the proposed policy could severely limit an officer’s ability to investigate crimes. During the meeting he used the example of an officer stopping a driver for speeding and smelling marijuana in the car. He said with the proposed decriminalization policy in place, the officer would not investigate beyond the speeding incident, because doing so would contradict city guidelines. 

“The officer now does not know whether or not this person is a dealer. If he is bringing drugs into the community. Is he selling drugs in the community? He [the officer] wouldn’t have that discretion to look any further,” Roberson said. 

Waters said taking on the issue of decriminalization of marijuana possession is about striking a balance between local control and avoiding policy that clashes with state law. 

“We looked into what is known as the separation of powers doctrine. The impact of city council, perhaps establishing policies versus giving specific direction to law enforcement officers and to prosecutors,” Waters said.  

The council is still in the early stages of discussion and did not specify possession amount limits or how police would adjust their practices if the city approves a plan for decriminalization. No formal action was taken Tuesday as the city council sent the issue back to the Diversity Committee for further review. 

The committee will discuss drafting a proclamation or an amendment to the legislative platform prioritizing this topic at the state legislative level.

The next Diversity Committee meeting is on August 18. If the committee drafts and approves the document, the earliest it would be presented to the Council Committee of the Whole would be September 7.

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