The mayor of Kansas City scored a drug policy reform victory on Thursday after the City Council approved a resolution he introduced to remove all local criminal penalties for marijuana possession. And he’s not stopping there.
When Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) filed the proposal last month, he emphasized the need to stop taking a punitive approach to cannabis in order to mitigate unnecessary police interactions that primarily impact black Americans. But, unlike many pro-reform officials across the country who have drawn a line at marijuana, Lucas sees opportunities to take further steps to more comprehensively put an end to the war on drugs.
Missouri voters legalized medical cannabis in 2018, and there was a push from activists this year to put an adult-use legalization initiative on the November ballot—but that effort stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic. Lucas said in an interview with Marijuana Moment that he would support such a measure, and revealed that he’s also been in touch with other mayors in the state about passing similar decriminalization ordinances in the meantime.
The mayor spoke in a phone interview on Friday about the City Council action, his broader drug policy reform plans and why he’s made the cannabis issue a main focus for his administration. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Can I start by getting your reaction to the City Council vote in favor of your ordinance?
Quinton Lucas: I am elated. This is something that has been a goal of mine since I was first elected to office on the City Council back in 2015 and it was one of my platforms running for mayor. It was interesting because when I was running for mayor, a lot of people said, ‘boy, that seems really controversial.’ I had this recognition that when you look at marijuana law and policy—not just across the coasts of America, or more progressive places, but even in middle America—you were seeing significant change, including Missouri voting with a 66 percent ‘yes’ vote for medical marijuana.
So I was optimistic as it went through the process. I think most of my colleagues got it. To the extent they didn’t, it was almost exclusively old line arguments of the dangers of marijuana, that sort of thing and the sort of things we’ve been hearing since the 1980s to help prosecute a drug war that has locked up tens of thousands of black men in particular.
I’m excited about that. As this issue came up during this Black Lives Matter movement around our country, and I also think it is exceedingly relevant to the moment we’re in now. You cannot talk about reform of the criminal justice system without reforming laws that are incredibly unfair, that have disproportionate impact upon black and brown communities. And if you look at marijuana—particularly in usage rates versus incarceration and arrest rates—it has been a travesty how we have seen a black community largely criminalized in the hunt for marijuana, being overly police for it.
So I’m thrilled that we’re making that important change in Kansas City, particularly at this moment.
MM: Have you talked to mayors of other cities about pursuing this policy change? Do you think more local action might build pressure for statewide reform?
QL: That is much what our plan is. Now, usually at this point of the year, I’d be able to hit a conference or two to talk to some other mayors. There’s a group of black mayors I visit with somewhat regularly and I know a few have asked for our particular ordinance, and so that I think it’s a positive step and an exciting step for us. But in St. Louis, Missouri, of course, St. Louis would be the ones that are very similar to us. Their difference, of course, is that they elect their own prosecutor for the city of St. Louis. And I believe she has been fairly progressive on marijuana policies so they may not view themselves as having the same need.
That said, yeah, there are a lot of other cities in Missouri. Columbia is a college town. Springfield, I look to working with them to make sure we can really get sensible policy around the state—not unlike Colorado, and then other states making positive steps in marijuana policy. I think that’s the way we can get it done in a place like Missouri, but it’s still pretty conservative.
MM: Activists in Missouri were circulating a petition to put adult-use legalization on the state ballot earlier this year before they shut down. Did you happen to sign it? And if not, would you sign a similar measure for 2022?
QL: Oh I’d absolutely sign it. I haven’t yet. Part of it is just because I’ve been mayor for 11 months and the world’s been coming to an end for half that time. I’m just behind, in fairness. But no, I’d absolutely sign something like that because I think, you know, this is the way things should go and it’s going to be essential for us.
MM: You’ve recently talked about removing criminal penalties not just for marijuana but other currently illicit drugs. Can you talk to me about plans you have to advance broader decriminalization?
QL: I’m a a person who—this comes at me from living in my community. The drug war has been an abject failure. I live in a majority black community, was raised in a majority black community and proud to be from it. When I look at the problems on my streets—when I’m looking at what’s going on right now and people addicted to heroin, people addicted to any number of things—our drug laws aren’t helping. Our drug laws aren’t helping people find better treatment.
In fact, in some ways, they’re exacerbating problems by using an incarceration approach to what should instead be, frankly, a health-based approach—one that is not punitive, but one that’s trying to actually get people help and support. So I think it is probably time for our country to recognize that the way we’re prosecuting our drug war, the thought of throwing people away when really at some point there are substance abuse issues—or, frankly, when you look to recreational users with a number of narcotics, and users are being treated in a discriminatory manner, then I think it is time for us to say, ‘what are we doing?’
I'll be clear. We should remove any marijuana or minor drug offenses from our code. We should end failure-to-pay arrest warrants. We should stop wondering why there are disproportionately higher negative police-community interactions in neighborhoods where we are "over-law'ed"
— Mayor Q (@QuintonLucasKC) June 13, 2020
I’ll use just one example. Let’s take a look at cocaine. Everybody’s written a lot on crack versus powder cocaine disparities and sentencing, which is still amazing travesty, but I actually just came from a perspective of, when I went to school, I went to college at Washington University at St. Louis Law School at Cornell, and none of the casual-cocaine-using-now-lawyers-of-big-firms-in-New York City that I actually went to school with, faced any stiff penalties in any of the badges of impropriety that you see so many others do.
I think when you look at a system that is so terribly out of whack, and perhaps what we should say is, ‘well, what is it actually that we’re trying to solve?’ And what I believe—at least if you go back 30 years—what we’re trying to solve is actually a public health crisis, which we have failed to do. We really need to, I think, reform our laws more to actually more abolition, frankly, and looking at how can we find public health resources for anyone who is suffering from any dependency or something of that sort.
MM: What else can be done locally and legislatively to ramp down the drug war?
QL: I think that it’s primarily in the mental health space and substance misuse treatment. But I think, you know, even more than that, it is providing more social workers. That’s something we actually do out of our police budget, which is a little bit different. I think that’s been a big step for us. And, frankly, kind of changing the narrative of our crime problem—and we have a significant one, but moving it away from drugs really being the problem.
Actually, firearms being a problem. I mean, in Kansas City, we have a huge murder problem. We don’t, I think, have a drug problem beyond anyone else’s. But the problem is that the ready access to firearms has been our greatest concern. For me, it’s been kind of a shifting in both narrative and focus, and I think that we’ll continue to pay dividends for it over the years.
MM: There’s been some debate about whether decriminalization should be coupled with mandatory substance misuse treatment, as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has recommended. Reform advocates tend to disagree and say it should be voluntary. Where do you stand?
QL: I think it should be voluntary. I think mandatory systems of treatment are just another form of punishment and we’ve already called most prisons “departments of corrections.” So I think it’s still fair to say that’s not working. You need to try to find positive resources that meet people where they are. Most people that I’ve known who’ve suffered from drug and alcohol dependency, usually actually get to a point where they themselves find an opportunity to cure their problems and their addictions. Rare is it that there’s just a sentence that tells them, ‘alright, you need to do it.’
The other part of it is, by making it mandatory, compulsory, you are still frankly emboldening our prison industrial complex. If we’re actually being real about it, then you would probably see that a number of people who find themselves in incarceration now have either been through such programs that were wholly ineffective and underfunded. I think if we’re really making a difference, then yes, the solution is let’s go all towards a voluntary system where people are actually finding treatment and being able to build better lives long-term.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.