New bill would allow for use, sale and growth of marijuana in St. Louis

Originally posted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS • A bill filed this week that would allow marijuana to be used, sold and grown in St. Louis aims to reduce disproportionate penalties for existing violations and free up time for police to focus on crimes with victims.

The bill, sponsored by Alderman Megan Green, 15th Ward, would stop enforcement of any laws that permit “the civil or criminal punishment for the use or possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia against any individual or entity,” except under certain circumstances.

Civil or criminal penalties could be enforced on anyone using marijuana under the age of 21, selling to someone under 21, or possessing more than 2 ounces of marijuana or more than 10 marijuana plants for cultivation. Under the measure, consumption of marijuana anywhere but on private residential property would be limited.

The plan would allow the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to focus on violent, more serious crime at a time when police resources are limited, Green said.

A Florida couple got more than the storage totes they purchased.

The proposal also would make it illegal to refuse to hire or to terminate someone for legally using marijuana under the parameters of the ordinance.

The bill will be read for the first time on Friday when the Board of Aldermen meets. Green says she’s confident she could garner enough support for its passage in the coming weeks, though it’s still unclear at this point how much traction the proposal will have.

The legislation will likely reignite an ongoing debate over the risks and benefits of decriminalizing the drug. Proponents of loosening marijuana laws argue it’s less harmful than other drugs, including alcohol and nicotine. Opponents to decriminalization counter that marijuana’s health effects aren’t adequately understood, and that it can serve as a “gateway” to harder drugs.

Just a few years ago, most city aldermen were open to making the punishment for using the drug comparable to that of a traffic ticket.

In 2013, the board overwhelmingly approved a new ordinance reducing penalties for those in the city caught with small amounts of marijuana, for many of the same reasons laid out in Green’s bill — freeing up police and prosecutor resources to focus on more serious crimes, while helping offenders avoid the heavier costs associated with state court.

Championed by 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn, that ordinance gives police the option to issue court summonses to first- and second-time offenders who are caught with less than 35 grams of pot, essentially turning a criminal infraction into a municipal one. Those arrested could be released with a court summons instead of being booked in city jail. Violations result in a $100-$500 fine.

Before any St. Louis ordinances were passed, city police charged offenders under the harsher state law, but supporters of the new plan argue federal law prohibiting marijuana makes the enforcement of state laws redundant.

Green’s bill goes further; it would repeal and replace the city’s existing marijuana ordinance. Cohn has already signed on as a co-sponsor.

But the more extensive bill could meet more resistance. Koran Addo, a spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, said Tuesday the mayor was in favor of decriminalizing marijuana use, but that she warned “it’s very difficult for a city to go alone on this type of issue.”

“This is a subject that will have to be worked on on a broader basis,” Addo said.

St. Louis has explored its own marijuana ordinances in part because there’s little appetite in Missouri’s state Legislature to pass laws decriminalizing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.

Supporters of marijuana legalization as a way to offer relief to patients with certain conditions have turned to initiative petitions as a way to get around the state. A measure that would have allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat patients with diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t make it on the ballot last year, but New Approach Missouri is trying again this year.

A recent revision of Missouri’s criminal code did ease the criminal penalties for marijuana possession, eliminating jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana.

Green still believes her proposal is worth considering, in part because of untapped economic potential in a cash-strapped city in desperate need of new revenue.

“(Marijuana) is a $6 billion industry and rapidly growing,” Green said. “It’s hard to calculate, but there is, I think a huge potential for revenue generation.”

She’s also confident the bill, if signed into law, could pass legal muster if challenged. Other cities have taken steps to move toward full or partial legalization with little interference from the federal government, Green said.

As for state lawmakers, who this year alone have pre-empted St. Louis laws dealing with abortion and the minimum wage, Green says she’s worked with attorneys on the legislation since last March, passing it back and forth to five different lawyers to make sure the language could survive a potential court challenge.

“I think we’ve finally got to a bill where there’s a legal consensus on what we can do,” she said.