Thoughts on Marijuana Decriminalization in St. Louis

The recent introduction of a marijuana “decriminalization” ordinance by Alderman Shane Cohn is a move in the right direction for St. Louis. Advocates of sensible marijuana policy should support this move, but should be aware that this ordinance has several deficiencies that should be understood and addressed. Here is the relevant text of the ordinance:

SECTION ONE Unlawful Possession
It shall be unlawful for any person to possess marijuana as defined in Chapter 195.010 et. seq. of the Revised Statutes of Missouri as amended.
SECTION TWO Medical Marijuana Exception.
Patients for whom marijuana has been legally prescribed by a physician, shall not be in violation of this Ordinance for obtaining possessing or using marijuana pursuant to such prescription.
SECTION THREE Penalty Clause.
Any person violating this Ordinance shall be subject to a fine of not less than one hundred dollars and not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not more than ninety days, or by both fine and imprisonment.
Here are the deficiencies in this proposition:

First, the law leaves it up to the police on where they’re going to charge someone, in state court under the old law or in city court under the new law.

┬áSecond, it still allows 90 days in jail for a first offense – this is the maximum penalty in city court.
It doesn’t take away the power of arrest – the police can still use this law to arrest and hold for 20 hours people not committing any other offense.
And finally, the “medical marijuana exception” is not very good for two reasons, first of which is the police can circumvent it by charging medical users in state court, and second of which is that it requires a “prescription,” which you can’t get anywhere. It needs to say “recommendation” and be explicit that recommendations obtained in other states will be honored.
By comparison, the 2004 marijuana decriminalization ordinance that passed by initiative in Columbia, Missouri, is much better:

With about 60 percent support, voters last November approved a measure that prohibits Columbia police officers from arresting anyone for simple marijuana possession. That means anyone found with less than an ounce and a quarter of marijuana can only be given a summons to appear in the city’s municipal court. Police officers no longer have the discretion to refer the case to the district attorney for prosecution by the state. Once in municipal court, the maximum fine that can be levied is $250, regardless of whether the defendant is a first-time offender or has been arrested multiple times.

Supporters of sensible marijuana policy in St. Louis would do well to consider the Columbia ordinance as the standard for marijuana decriminalization as they press forward.

Full disclosure: I was ticketed for possession of marijuana paraphernalia in 2008 by Columbia police and paid about $150 in fines and court costs.

Many thanks to Missouri NORML attorneys Dan Viets and Joe Welch for their discussion of this ordinance proposal with me.

One thought on “Thoughts on Marijuana Decriminalization in St. Louis

  1. Vroman says:

    The second hearing before the Health Committee is tomorrow 9a, which will reveal whatever amendments have been made in the past two weeks. At the first hearing, Cohn and several other government witnesses, specifically referenced the Columbia law as superior language. Your suggestions may already have been taken. I will report the outcome tomorrow.

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