Why a bold proposal for decriminalizing marijuana in Prairie Village failed — and what could come next

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Illustration by by Melanie Adlich

Prairie Village sits right between two sides of the marijuana decriminalization debate, literally. To the east, in Missouri, possession has been decriminalized in Jackson County and a full-on recreational legalization effort is planned for the 2022 ballot. But in Kansas, a gram of cannabis could land you in jail for six months.

Two members of the Prairie Village city council tried to change that with a proposal that would have made it the first city in Johnson County to decriminalize pot. Their proposal ran into a buzzsaw of opposition that included the city’s police chief testifying that legalization would turn the leafy suburb into a destination for drug dealers. In the end, the measure was effectively tabled, and the decriminalization effort is at a standstill.

“My concern grew out of the absurdity that being on the wrong side of the street could put you in the system,” says council member Ian Graves, who proposed the issue along with council member Inga Selders.

The mechanism for decriminalization discussed was an opt-out of statewide marijuana possession provisions, which would’ve removed possession from city codes. But it wouldn’t have prevented officers from enforcing state laws. Instead, anyone arrested for pot in Prairie Village would be tried in county court, which Graves ultimately felt might be worse for those charged. “You want as few people as possible to have records,” he says.“And you don’t want to spark an unproductive lawsuit with the attorney general’s office.”

The lawsuit is not just theoretical. In 2015, voters in Wichita decriminalized marijuana. However, the state’s conservative Republican attorney general, Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor next year, took the city to court and won a decision striking down the voter-approved measure technicalities.

In Prairie Village, the matter is not purely academic: Public records show that from 2019 to 2020, the city had one hundred and two marijuana arrests. That accounted for about seven percent of the city’s total arrests, though the city was unable to provide stats on how many included other charges.

Council member Selders still believes the opt-out method is the most direct way of addressing racial disparities in marijuana enforcement. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people in Kansas are nearly five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Incomplete data suggests the number jumps to more than eight times more likely in Johnson County.

“If we had gone this route, it would have sent a clear message to our district attorney that we as a city no longer support this facet of systemic racism,” Selders wrote via email. 

Police chief Byron Roberson, who told the council that the measure “will make our city more attractive to drug dealers and drug users,” rejected the equity argument. “I can only speak for my agency in my area, but I don’t see that marijuana is something that’s attributed to systemic racism,” he says. 

Roberson says decriminalization would limit officers’ discretion in conducting stops and deter them from searching further. But he also doesn’t recognize marijuana as a top priority for the department. “In most instances, marijuana finds us,” he says. “It’s a random thing that an officer finds in a traffic stop.”

For now, the measure is stalled. Graves says a state-level approach would be the best path forward. “This is the state’s problem to solve,” he says.

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