A reform bill pending in the Kansas Legislature would enable the state to follow in footsteps of Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri by reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a misdemeanor offense.
The House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee heard testimony Wednesday on House Bill 2628. It would reduce a person’s third conviction for simple marijuana possession — that’s possession of less than 25 grams of pot — from a felony to a misdemeanor. Under current state law, first and second offenses are misdemeanors.
“Our primary focus is on the intrinsic worth of the individual human being,” said Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, board chairwoman for Kansas Interfaith Action. “For too many years, too many of our friends, family members and fellow citizens have been criminalized, their futures ruined, by ill-advised, punitive and racially disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws.”
The bill would require the secretary of Kansas Department of Corrections to release inmates serving time in prison for simple possession. It would not legalize marijuana, and possession with the intent to distribute would still be charged as a felony.
Legislators in Topeka have taken a keen interest this session in criminal justice reform capable of reducing the state’s bulging prison population. The Kansas Sentencing Commission estimated the bill would decrease demand for adult prison bed space by 42 by June 2021.
Opponents of the bill are concerned about the bill’s retroactivity provision leading to premature release of inmates, said Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka police chief who lobbies for the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, and the Kansas Peace Officers Association.
Klumpp said the committee should take into consideration whether people in prison for marijuana possession are enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs and if they were sentenced for marijuana possession as part of a plea bargain that took a more serious offense off the table.
“We believe there are many unknowns that will be ignored in a blanket dismissal of these cases retroactively,” Klumpp said.
Other proponents of the bill said the reform would begin to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, because black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and the Liberty Alliance offered support.
Nick Reinecker, a Republican who ran for U.S. House in Kansas’ 1st District, also testified on behalf of the legislation.
“I don’t normally agree with the ACLU, but on an issue such as cannabis, I think you can recognize that there is plenty of bipartisan support when it comes to such a simple, modest change such as this,” Reinecker said.