A town hall style meeting hosted by Show Me Cannabis on Thursday in Park Hills sparked some local debate about reforming Missouri's marijuana laws.
The group is "an organization dedicated to ending the legal prohibition on cannabis in Missouri and regulating and taxing the plant in a manner similar to alcohol," according to their website. The meeting started with three panelists each giving a few remarks, followed by a Q-and-A session.
Discussion topics ranged from the recent sentencing of two Farmington siblings for cultivation, to possible tax benefits from its sale on the open market. Some in the audience also voiced opposition to the group's platform of marijuana legalization.
"Not all these people here are for marijuana legalization ... there are several of us who are not. There are several things involved in this that are highly questionable. Why was it made illegal in the first place? Were they complete idiots back in those days? Is it a gateway drug? That side of the story needs to be talked about ... probably not in this forum," said Paul Pankhurst.
Dan Viets, attorney and group chairperson, kicked the meeting off by discussing the David and Natalie DePriest sentencing hearing. Twenty-fourth judicial circuit court Judge Kenneth W. Pratte sentenced the two siblings in November to 22 and 15 years, respectively, in the department of corrections for a marijuana grow operation in Farmington.
"Judge Pratte has the authority to let them back out of prison. We hope he is going to use that authority. I certainly don't want to criticize Judge Pratte. I'm sure he did what he thought was appropriate, but he is elected by all of you who live in St. Francois County and Ste. Genevieve and the other counties in this circuit and I'm certain he'll listen to what the voters have to say," Viets said.
Viets urged those in attendance to sign a petition compelling the judge to grant them probation, which he has the ability to do within the first 120 days.
"Please sign that petition. It's just astounding they are serving the sentences they are. Very close to 90 percent of people in their position receive probation without serving any time in the department of corrections," Viets said.
The group says current ballot initiatives aim for regulation of marijuana in Missouri based on legislation similar to Colorado. Recent remarks by President Barrack Obama on marijuana have resounded among those in favor of reform, according to Viets.
"It made national news because the President said marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. And everybody knows that marijuana is less dangerous. It is a lot dangerous than tobacco as well. But, for a sitting president to make that statement, it's newsworthy. It's very encouraging,” Viets explained.
According to the attorney, a recent Gallup poll shows 55 percent of Americans in favor of legalization. The group is polling likely 2014 voters. If they can garner 60 percent of the likely vote in November, they will pursue one of 14 ballot initiatives recently approved by the secretary of state.
"We'll do our best to get the signatures we need, it's about 160,000 of them, to get that initiative on the ballot this November. On the other hand if doesn't look like we will get the support we need we'll wait until 2016," Viets said.
Decriminalization of marijuana in Columbia is something the group would like to see expounded to include cultivation of up to six plants, according to Viets. An ordinance passed 10 years ago made misdemeanor possession in that city a municipal infraction. Viets says "objectively" the ordinance is one of the best in the country.
"What it does is require police not to arrest people but to give them a summons, to send them only to municipal court. That's a key provision. No other city in the country, as far as I'm aware of, has specifically directed their law enforcement officers to only use the city ordinance," Viets said. "We are hoping to get that expanded to include six plants, or less than six plants."
Executive director and Poplar Bluff native John Payne discussed use among teens, costs to the taxpayers, and possible future legislation.
"Even if you think it's a good idea to (keep) cannabis illegal, to keep it away from people ... well the policy that we have simply isn't doing that. The reason being is I never had to leave school to get cannabis. I would buy it from my buddy or in the parking lot after school, whereas alcohol, that took planning." Payne said.
According to Payne, the cost to the taxpayers for marijuana enforcement is $90,000 a year. This drain on law enforcement resources deters attention from more serious crimes, according to the group.
"We are making about 20,000 arrests. It's basically like arresting all of Farmington and most of Park Hills every single year. That's crazy. These people are all getting criminal records. It's going to be a lot harder for them to find jobs, to go to school. Even if there is a person who has a problem with cannabis, and some people do, how is this helping them?" Payne asked.
Sgt. Gary Wiegert, a 34-year veteran of the Saint Louis Police Department who became a lobbyist for the group, says misdemeanor arrests for the drug are a waste of money and law enforcement's time.
"I've made thousands of drug arrests. I've made hundreds of marijuana arrests. If someone is caught, I obey the law. But when I first came on the department if you made an arrest for marijuana the other policemen would just make fun of you. Let's face it, St. Louis, we got a lot of big problems there, marijuana isn't one of them," Wiegert said.
He adds that the police are only doing their duty in enforcing the law, but that they also often have to overlook marijuana offenses to pursue cases that are more dangerous.
"When I first came on this police department, you find someone with some marijuana and you wad it up and throw it into the sewer. Now things have changed. Now police cars have cameras in the cars so police have lost that discretion. They no longer can do that because they are on camera committing a violation," Wiegert said.
Heroin overdoses have forced St. Louis police to carry an antidote in recent months, which is not an issue with marijuana.
"We have a meth problem. We have a real heroin problem. We have a cocaine problem. With these habits, they're burglarizing people. They are knocking down little old ladies and taking their purses and they’re doing it to support one of these three habits. They're not doing it to buy marijuana," Weigert said.
If there is enough support to place a question of marijuana law reform on the ballot, Missourians could vote on the issue in the fall of 2014.