Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Author: Greg Jonsson Of the Post-Dispatch
Published: November 13, 2004
Copyright: 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Contact: [email protected]
Columbia, Mo. - It ain't Amsterdam, and it's still got nothing on Berkeley.
But when voters in Columbia passed two propositions decriminalizing marijuana, they made this mid-Missouri college town about the closest thing the Midwest has to offer.
Decriminalization means if you're caught in the city with a small amount of marijuana, "you don't get arrested, you don't go to jail, and you don't get a record," according to Dan Viets, a Columbia defense attorney who helped spearhead the effort to pass the propositions. He's also defended clients against marijuana charges here for 18 years.
"These people don't deserve to be treated like criminals," Viets said. "They aren't a threat to society."
The number of voters who agreed on Nov. 2 startled supporters and foes alike.
Almost 70 percent of voters backed Proposition 1, which makes it legal for seriously ill patients to possess and use marijuana if they have a doctor's permission.
More than 60 percent voted for Proposition 2, which requires arrests for possession of 35 grams or less of pot be handled in municipal court, not state court where consequences are more severe.
In municipal court, defendants will face smaller fines and no jail time. First-time offenders could have their prosecution deferred and charges dropped if they stay out of trouble.
Municipal court also means students busted on misdemeanor charges in the city would not lose their financial aid under the Higher Education Act, which strips funds from recipients with marijuana convictions in higher courts.
"It doesn't help society to have people drop out of college," Viets said. "It's counterproductive. People who commit murder or rape or robbery can still get student loans. It's irrational."
In a town with tens of thousands of college students, that message resonated.
"I think it's a good idea," said Nate Tomasi, a Mizzou senior from Springfield, Mo., who supported the propositions. "I don't want my tax money going to taking kids out of school. Marijuana laws right now are a little too strict for the actual consequences."
Students like Tomasi might have helped make the difference in this election. When a similar measure went before voters last year, the smaller turnout of mostly older voters narrowly defeated the proposition.
But the turnout and support for the propositions on Nov. 2 reveal that liberal college students aren't the only ones who voted for the propositions, Viets said. A growing number of adults nationwide say they've tried pot, and a majority support medical use of marijuana and decriminalization, he said.
Average people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, both conservative and liberal, passed the propositions.
"This isn't just a college town phenomenon," he said. "College students were helpful, but they did not dominate this election."
It may be too early to light up in celebration, however, and not everyone will be taking part.
Opponents and law enforcement officials say the laws address problems that don't really exist and take decision-making authority away from police and prosecutors.
For example, they say misdemeanor marijuana charges were already a low priority.
"The idea that law enforcement was rushing in and cuffing people and throwing them in jail with no prior history is a misnomer," said Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane. "We weren't filling up the jail with people who didn't have associated criminal offenses or a prior history. It just isn't happening."
First-time offenders were already sent to municipal court, according to Crane and Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm. They're concerned that the new law treats repeat offenders the same way.
"It removes law enforcement discretion as to how a case should be dealt with," Boehm said. "We have to treat a fourth- or fifth- or sixth-time offender the same as a first-time offender."
There are still many unanswered questions, as well. Are campus police bound by the new laws? Will the laws encourage more people to use marijuana? Does the medical marijuana proposition put the city in conflict with state law? What kind of documentation is required to show a doctor's recommendation to have cannabis?
The medical marijuana law makes it legal for patients to possess and use pot in Columbia, but gives them no legal source for their supply. That's something David Sapp hopes to change now that the first step has been taken.
Sapp, 54, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago. As his condition worsened in 1996, a neurologist in the San Francisco area, where Sapp lived, recommended he try marijuana for some of his symptoms.
Other drugs either hadn't helped treat symptoms such as spasticity - a contraction of muscles that can range from muscle stiffness to severe, painful spasms - or their side effects were too severe.
Marijuana helped, and he bought it from legal medical marijuana sources in California and ingested it in baked goods or tea. As his condition progressed, he quit his law practice and moved back to Missouri in 1998.
He moved to Columbia, where he went to graduate school and still had friends. But before Proposition 1 passed, he couldn't use marijuana legally.
"Medical marijuana wasn't available and I didn't want to support the black market, so I haven't used it much here," he said. "It's really made a difference in my life, and not for the better. My limited movement is even more limited."
He said he'd like to see a legitimate source of medical marijuana set up, as in California, so the chronically ill can get the drug safely and legally.
"In California, I saw rooms filled with sick people who could get something that really helped," Sapp said. "I think you'd find that here if there was a safe place people could go."
That might happen if Viets and others who want to change marijuana laws are successful with their next target: the Missouri General Assembly.
"We strongly believe the state Legislature, even a Republican-dominated state Legislature, should be capable of passing a medical marijuana law," Viets said. "Clearly we had large numbers of Republicans who supported this proposal. It's a conservative value that the government should leave us alone and stay out of our lives if we're not hurting anybody. And very few people have been victimized by a marijuana smoker."
On Nov. 2, Montana became the 11th state to exempt medicinal marijuana patients from state criminal penalties. Other states that have enacted laws protecting qualified patients who use marijuana include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
States that have reduced the punishment for those caught with small amounts of marijuana include: Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, New York and Maine.
Cities and college towns that have reduced the punishment for those caught with small amounts of marijuana include: Ann Arbor, Mich.; Seattle; Detroit; Pittsburgh; Madison, Wis.; and Austin, Texas.
Source: National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
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