Lowering penalties for marijuana possession may at first glance seem to be a good idea. Proponents see it as a way to address the racial inequality that surrounds arrests for such possession. However, relaxing laws will not solve racial issues, and will only serve to make the situation worse.
On April 4, voters in Kansas City, Missouri, voted in a special election, reports NPR. Among the issues considered in the election was Question 5, a ballot initiative that would reduce the penalties for marijuana possession. Nearly 75 percent of voters approved the initiative.
According to The Kansas City Star, the measure will result in a lower the fine for marijuana possession of 35 grams or less, changing from $500 to $25. In addition, it will eliminate jail time as a penalty altogether (the previous sentence time was 180 days).
The changes will only be applicable in Kansas City Municipal Court. Missouri law currently states that possession of up to 10 grams is a misdemeanor.
Some believe this change will be a good thing because they feel it will correct injustices regarding disproportionate arrest rates between Caucasian and African-American individuals. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Caucasians and African Americans use marijuana in roughly equal amounts but African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession.
Similar figures are reflected in Kansas City. In the last fiscal year, almost 70 percent of defendants for marijuana use were African-American, despite making up only 30 percent of the city's population, reports The Kansas City Star.
The thought is that paying only a $25 fine will be a better option for those who are convicted of marijuana possession. However, while this change may reduce the consequences for those who are arrested for marijuana possession, it does nothing to combat the disproportionate arrest rates across racial lines. It provides a bandage-type solution for the situation without addressing the actual, systematic problems that exist.
In addition, the fines may actually result in arrests having a lasting negative impact on the lives of those who are arrested.
Kansas City's contract with Legal Aid of Western Missouri provides defendants facing jail time with free representation by an attorney. In 2016, Legal Aid represented 59 defendants facing marijuana possession charges. According to City Prosecutor Lowell Gard, defendants were hardly ever jailed for possession.
Under the new system, those accused of marijuana convictions are not facing jail time; this means that they are not entitled to free legal aid. In order to get the charges removed from their record, they would have to hire an attorney at their own expense.
This clearly shows that the changes Question 5 has ushered in will only serve to make things worse. Under the old system, defendants rarely went to jail but were able to obtain legal aid that sometimes erased the charges from their records. Under the new systems, many defendants will have no such chance to clear their records, which could come back to haunt them later in life when applying for jobs, for instance.
With all this in mind, it is clear that Kansas City's decision to reduce the penalties surrounding marijuana use is a poor one. Other cities should think twice and not make similar changes.