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Kansas Supreme Court Tosses Marijuana Law

WICHITA, Kan. (CN) - The Kansas Supreme Court struck down a city ordinance decriminalizing some marijuana offenses after concluding supporters botched the ballot paperwork that led to its adoption.

The Jan. 22 ruling invalidates a referendum in which 54 percent of the voters endorsed loosening restriction on marijuana use.

In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, the court found that because filings by bill supporters lacked "verbatim" wording of the then-potential law, the court can't be sure that citizens and lawmakers knew exactly what they were voting on or how it would change existing laws.

"Without the full proposed ordinance on file with the city clerk, this court cannot conclusively determine what version all members of the city council actually had the opportunity to review before voting to submit its unaltered form to the electorate," the opinion states. "A verbatim copy officially on file is particularly important."

The 2015 ordinance would have reduced the severity of first-offense marijuana possession or related drug paraphernalia convictions from a misdemeanor to an infraction, so long as the offender is at least 21 years old and possessed less than an ounce.

The ordinance also lowered the penalty for possession to $50.

As a result of the ruling, supporters of the referendum would have to re-file it and campaign to get it approved a second time by the voters of the city.

Even then, however, it could still face a constitutional challenge.

Ironically, because voter support for the initiative was so strong last time around, backers of renewed effort to pass it would have to collect more than three times the 2928 signatures collected the first time, according to The Wichita Eagle.

The number is based on 25 percent of the last election's turnout.

In striking down the law, the court refrained from ruling on constitutional issues. Kansas claimed Wichita overstepped its authority by passing an ordinance that conflicted with the state's drug laws.

The case was filed on the state's behalf by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a two-term Republican.

"Today's decision confirms what we have said all along-the Wichita marijuana ordinance is illegal and void," Schmidt said in a statement.

Schmidt acknowledged that the ruling failed to address the larger issue of whether the enacted ordinance would have been valid under state law, and called on state legislators to clarify the issue during the current session.

"The legislature should make crystal clear its intent to have these law enforcement standards, policies and procedures uniform throughout the state. Whatever one's views on the merits of current state policy related to marijuana, I think most Kansans agree it makes little sense for the basic rules for enforcing the criminal law to differ from city to city," Schmidt said.

A concurring opinion written, Justice Daniel Biles agreed that the issue was far from concluded.

"A procedural decision on the filing requirements does not eliminate the need to decide the constitutional question," Biles wrote.

The Wichita city council put the referendum on the April 2015 ballot after a group called Marijuana Reform Initiative secured enough signatures and filed them with the city clerk. In a statement issued by the state's largest municipality, the city demurred from pushing the issue further. "We respect the court's decision issued today. The opinion provides clarity for all cities receiving such petitions. At this point there is no action for the city to take."

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