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On Apr. 4, voters in Kansas City, Mo. approved a measure to decriminalize possession of marijuana. The new law institutes a maximum $25 fine and eliminates jail time for being caught with less than 35 grams of pot. Previously, those who got in trouble for small possession could’ve been on the hook for a $500 fine and 180 days in jail.

Some local lawmakers criticized the initiative, which made the ballot thanks to a campaign by NORML KC. “This does not solve anything,” city councilwoman Alissia Canada told the Kansas City Star. “It just creates more problems for people who don’t have any money and are already overburdened by the criminal justice system.”

Until this vote, defendants charged with low-level cannabis crimes were eligible for representation from Legal Aid lawyers. Without the possibility of jail time, defendants would no longer be eligible and would have to hire their own attorneys.

Last year, nearly 70 percent of defendants in possession cases were African American, according to an analysis of court data by the Star. Only about 30 percent of the city’s 450,000 residents are African-American. Legal Aid represented nearly 60 percent of defendants in possession cases.

NORML KC Executive Director Jamie Kacz described the measure as a “baby step,” and said the organization was working on assembling a network of attorneys for those who are now ineligible for Legal Aid representation.

Meanwhile, on Mar. 1, new Harris Country, Tex. district attorney Kim Ogg instituted a policy to decriminalize possession of less than four ounces of marijuana. “We’ve spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ogg explained, much to the dismay of some state officials. Harris Country includes Houston; with 4.1 million residents, it’s the state’s largest county.

By Mar. 17, 178 individuals agreed to take a drug education class rather than go to jail on possession offenses. Ogg’s office is also leading the nation when it comes to exonerating defendants who are wrongly convicted of drug offenses.

Elsewhere, conservative state officials have been actively going after city-level decriminalization measures. Both Nashville and Memphis, Tenn. passed city-level decriminalization ordinances last fall. Though the laws leave much to be desired, the state House recently approved a bill that seeks to nullify those city-level laws.

This post was originally published at Check out Freedom Leaf magazine for this editor’s Word on the Tree column.

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