Metro-East News

You could soon use pot in St. Louis and not worry about being arrested

Metro-east residents who cross the Mississippi River and get busted for weed face stiffer penalties in Missouri than they do in Illinois.

But maybe not for long. A St. Louis alderwoman has proposed a bill that would direct police not to spend their time and energy enforcing marijuana laws on use, growth or sales in the city.

“We have a violent crime rate that has been increasing in recent years,” said Megan Green, alderwoman for the 15th ward, which includes the Tower Grove South neighborhood.

“We should be using our police resources to address that instead of enforcing marijuana laws. It’s a product that is becoming legal in cities and states across the country.”

Illinois decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis last year, making it a civil violation with a $100 to $200 fine. In 2014, Illinois 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.

Green can even see a possible economic benefit if the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen passes her bill, which she filed Tuesday. It had its first reading at a meeting on Friday.

“Tourism in Colorado went up exponentially after they stopped enforcing marijuana laws, so the same thing could happen in St. Louis,” Green said. “I would expect that people from the metro-east would come here if they knew the laws weren’t being enforced.”

Green’s efforts were commended by Ali Nagib, vice president of the Chicago-based Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“We support any of those measures, especially in states like Missouri where they have a tougher political climate, where it’s less likely to see progressive cannabis reform,” he said.

Nagib doubts many metro-east residents would drive to St. Louis to smoke weed, given the relatively low penalties in Illinois.

“But if you are a metro-east resident who works in St. Louis or spends time in St. Louis and consumes cannabis in St. Louis, then this ordinance would dramatically reduce the chances of you being arrested,” he said.

Metro-east residents who bought marijuana in St. Louis and brought it back home would still be subject to fines under Illinois law, Nagib said.

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 would be affected by changes in Missouri laws or St. Louis ordinances, said Scott Abbott, chief operating officer for HCI.

“We are absolutely a patient-based operation, so if you don’t live in Illinois and you don’t have one of these 41 medical conditions, we wouldn’t be dispensing to you,” he said.

Abbott is a former Illinois State Police lieutenant colonel who served briefly as Lebanon police chief before starting his own security business. He’s a strong supporter of medical marijuana because of its effectiveness in treating pain and other symptoms, he said.

Abbott also sees marijuana as a tool to help fight the country’s opioid epidemic.

“We’ve seen so many people who were taking traditional opiates for pain who have been able to reduce their pain with cannabis,” he said. “They feel like they’re finally getting their lives back.”

Abbott also has warmed up to the idea of decriminalizing recreational marijuana in recent years. History has shown prohibition doesn’t work, he said, and it causes a health hazard because street pot is not regulated or tested.

Jackie Singleton, 53, of Granite City, agrees.

“People are going to smoke weed, whether they get caught or not,” she said. “If you take it away from them, they’ll get some more. They’re going to do it in the privacy of their own homes, and they should be able to.

“(Arresting them) is a waste of taxpayer’s money and a waste of time for the police and the courts,” she said.

Singleton became a medical-marijuana fan after it helped several of her friends with serious illnesses, she said. At one point, she used it in oil form for chronic back pain caused by an accident.

“There’s such a wide range of medical problems that can be cured by this natural plant,” she said.

Green’s bill aims to 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 of marijuana, 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. “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 thinks the bill has a chance of passing, based on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s 2013 decision to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Opponents of marijuana legalization argue that 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.

Green decided to propose her bill after reading about the opioid epidemic, she said.

“There have been a number of studies showing that opioid usage dropped by about 30 percent in places where marijuana was legalized or readily available.”

“We’ve had a pretty large heroin epidemic. We had over 600 people overdose in the St. Louis County metro area last year.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter