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Back to the drawing board for bill to stop enforcement of marijuana laws in St. Louis

The idea that some people might drive from Illinois or Missouri suburbs to deal drugs in St. Louis is one of the reasons Joe Vacarro is uncomfortable with a marijuana bill before the City Board of Aldermen.

Vaccaro is chairman of the board's 10-member legislative committee, which held a public hearing on Board Bill 180 this week. The bill would direct St. Louis police not to spend their time or energy enforcing laws on the use, growth or sale of marijuana.

"It would be very convenient for people (from other places) to do their marijuana sales in the city," said Vacarro, 62, who represents Ward 23 in southwest St. Louis. "You don't have to be a resident."

Vaccaro also is concerned about issues raised by City Counselor Julian Bush, who said the bill, if adopted as an ordinance, could get city employees, including police, into legal trouble.

"It's a crime for a police officer to refuse to execute a warrant, and this ordinance directs them not to execute a warrant and punishes them if they do," Bush said.

Bush's other concern is that Missouri law requires the city to provide a courthouse for circuit-court cases and, he said, the marijuana bill would prohibit city property from being used to punish people charged with possession.

Megan Green, the St. Louis alderwoman who proposed the bill in October, said she remains hopeful that the board can pass some form of it. She's now working on a committee substitute to address Bush's concerns.

"We're just plugging away," she said.

Green, 34, represents Ward 15, which includes the Tower Grove South neighborhood. She wants police to focus less on marijuana possession and more on violent crimes, such as assault, robbery and murder.

Her bill would stop enforcement of laws that permit “the civil or criminal punishment for the use or possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia against any individual or entity.” This would not apply to possession of more than 2 ounces, cultivation of more than 10 plants, possession by people under 21 or sales to people younger than 21.

“Marijuana is illegal under federal law,” Green said last fall. “But the 10th Amendment says that local municipalities cannot be compelled to use their resources to enforce federal law, and that’s how a lot of states and cities have gotten around it.”

Green was boosted by the support of St. Louis residents at the committee hearing on Tuesday night.

"It was pretty packed," she said. "We had 80 or so people show up. Not everybody testified, but they were there in support. I think we only had two people who spoke in opposition of the bill."

Supporters included:

  • Substance-abuse counselors, who argue that a loosening of marijuana restrictions can help with heroin and other opioid addiction because users have a safe alternative.

  • Civil-rights activists, who point to statistics showing that black people are more likely to get charged with marijuana possession than other St. Louis residents.

  • Medical-marijuana proponents, who are working to put an initiative on the Missouri ballot to allow people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses to use it legally.

  • Social activists, who note that tickets for possession of even small amounts of marijuana can make people ineligible for student loans, public housing and other government programs.

Marijuana opponents believe it is addictive and leads people to try harder drugs; that it negatively affects health and causes safety problems when people drive under the influence; and that American society has enough drug problems already.

Vaccaro said he doesn't see a big problem with current St. Louis ordinances, which impose fines as low as $25 for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but he's willing to listen to both sides.

"All but two or three people (at the hearing) were in support of decriminalizing marijuana," he said. "It was a younger crowd, but it was a good crowd, a very polite crowd. Nobody was disruptive. Everybody was extremely respectful."

A vocal proponent of Green's bill is Karin Chester, executive director of Greater St. Louis NORML. NORML stands for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"I really believe that incarcerating people for possession of a plant is ridiculous," said Chester, 47, of Hillsboro, Missouri. "Marijuana is so demonized because it's classified as a Schedule 1 substance. It's been proven over and over again that it has medical value, but the (Drug Enforcement Administration) will not reclassify it. Alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous, but neither one of them is a Schedule 1 substance. They're legal."

Chester said she has an auto-immune disorder that could be treated with hemp oil that is illegal under current Missouri law, forcing her to consider low-dose chemotherapy.

The local NORML chapter is helping New Approach Missouri with the medical-marijuana initiative by recruiting volunteers, getting petitions signed and making contributions.

"People are going to jail for having over 35 grams of marijuana," Chester said. "It automatically gets referred to the state, and they can face up to seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine, just for possessing a plant that has proven medical value."

Illinois decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana in 2016, making it a civil violation with a $100 to $200 fine. In 2014, it became the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana. In Missouri, possession of 10 grams or less is still a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500.

The Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program allows patients to legally obtain marijuana to treat 41 debilitating conditions, ranging from HIV/AIDS to glaucoma, muscular dystrophy to rheumatoid arthritis. Two dispensaries have opened in the metro-east since the program was created three years ago, HCI Alternatives in Collinsville and The Green Solution in Sauget.

Neither Green nor Vaccaro had a timeline on when a substitute Board Bill 180 will be presented or voted on by the legislative committee or full board.

"I'm not saying it will never happen," Vaccaro said. "But I think it will be a really long process. There's going to be a lot of changes to this bill. At the end of the day, maybe they'll come up with something that works."

Chester said she thinks St. Louis residents would vote for Green's bill if given the opportunity, but that members of the City Board of Aldermen are too fearful of state repercussions to adopt it as an ordinance now.

"If (medical marijuana) passes, I think it will be easier for cities like St. Louis to take the next step and legalize it for adult use," she said.

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