ST. LOUIS • Pot smokers may soon find sanctuary in the city under the arches, at least when it comes to criminal prosecution for small amounts of chronic cannabis.
The forward thinking St. Louis Alderman Shane Cohn, is about to introduce a bill this Friday which intends to lessen the consequence for personal possession of inconsequential amounts of weed in St. Louis, to that of a traffic ticket – similar to California.
Cohn’s bill would give police officers the option to redistribute some marijuana cases to themunicipal court system, essentially making a criminal infraction a municipal offense. Violators would typically be given a summons to appear in municipal court instead of handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. Police currently charge marijuana offenders under more harsh state laws because no local law is on the books.
The bill, which promises to set off a vigorous debate, also enables police to recognize patients with “valid legal prescriptions for medicinal marijuana.” State law does not recognize so-called medicinal marijuana.
“This is to alleviate the overstressed police and prosecutorial resources that are being overwhelmingly burdened,” Cohn said.
Cohn said more stringent penalties for marijuana possession saddles city residents with a huge financial burden and clogs the court system.
The local law would make St. Louis an oasis in Missouri, a state with “some of the harshestmarijuana laws in the country,” according to the Marijuana Police Project, a national advocacy group seeking to reduce or eliminate penalties for marijuana use.
As a home rule city, St. Louis has the power to enact its own regulations as long as they don’t directly conflict with state law. It couldn’t, for example, legalize marijuana unless the state adopted such a law.
For first offenders under state law, possession of a small amount of marijuana — from a gram to 35 grams— is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A second offense or possession of more than 35 grams is considered a felony.
The penalty for a violation of the proposed city ordinance would be a $100-$500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
Voters in Columbia, Mo., approved a similar law in 2004. Last year, the City Council in Springfield, Mo., approved an ordinance reducing marijuana-related penalties after a successful citizen initiative. But the same council repealed it less than a month later as critics said it made the city look “drug-friendly” and would put it at odds with the federal stance against marijuana.
Nationally, other states and cities have been more out front on the issue. In 2006, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance making marijuana possession the lowest priority for law enforcement.
In 1975, Colorado made possession of small amounts of marijuana a petty offense with a $100 fine. In November, the state went one step further and passed a law legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. That conflicts with federal law, which considers marijuana illegal, but President Barack Obama said last month that recreational users of marijuana in states that have legalized it should not be a “top priority” for federal law enforcement.
Cohn represents the city’s 25th Ward, which includes the Carondelet, Dutchtown and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. He said he worked with the circuit attorney’s office, the Police Department and the city counselor’s office in drafting the legislation.
“We support the concept,” said Rachel Smith, an assistant circuit attorney. “Government agencies should always be open-minded at looking at good ways to use their resources and make sure the appropriate level charge is handled at the appropriate level.”
Smith stressed that drug dealers and those who possess large amounts of marijuana should be prosecuted to the fullest extent.
Police could decide to use the local ordinance, or the more harsh state law. It would largely be up to the department to set a policy on such a matter.
The ordinance doesn’t define “small amount,” leaving that open to law enforcement interpretation.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who recently took office, said that he couldn’t give an opinion on the matter yet but that he’ll have a conversation soon with Cohn.
Mayor Francis Slay’s office said it wasn’t aware of the bill and couldn’t comment until more information was available.
John Payne, executive director of Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, a pro-legalization group, welcomed the proposal.
“I wasn’t aware of this, but it is great,” Payne said. “I was thinking it was time for St. Louis to put a law on the books.”
Payne, whose organization tracks marijuana arrests, said the city has been making fewer of them over the years.
“They’ve really cut back, and now this could formalize that policy,” he said.