MO: Bid To Bar Enforcement Of Marijuana Laws Gets Aldermanic Committee Hearing

Photo Credit: Rachel Lippmann

Legislation that would bar, in most instances, St. Louis from expending resources to enforce marijuana laws attracted mostly positive comments from city residents at an aldermanic committee hearing Tuesday night.

But Alderwoman Megan Green’s legislation received a less favorable reception from some of her colleagues, including the chairman of the committee hearing the bill.

Green’s legislation would prohibit the city from using any resources to “enforce laws that permit the civil or criminal punishment for the use or possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia against any individual or entity.” There are some exceptions, including for people under the age of 21 who are caught with marijuana.

“I think it’s necessary because it’s important that St. Louis is a leader on this issue,” said Green, D-15th Ward. “We heard from a number of folks tonight who would benefit from using marijuana for medicinal purposes. We’ve heard from people who work with people who are addicted to opioids and to heroin. And we know that legalization decreases that.”

Green added she’s making some changes to her bill, including reducing the amount of flowering marijuana plants that someone can have. She also said the revised version of the bill takes out language that could punish police officers for running afoul of parts of the ordinance.

St. Louis City Counselor Julian Bush said he had a number of concerns about the legislation, including the possibility that police could face legal action for not executing warrants. Green said she plans to talk with Bush soon to make sure he has “the most up to date information” about her bill.

The Board of Aldermen approved legislation earlier this year that caps the fines for possessing 35 grams or less of marijuana to $25. It also states that the “proper disposition of any such case is to suspend the imposition of sentence and/or require community service work and/or drug counseling and education.”

But some attorneys who spoke during the public forum section of the committee hearing, including Bret Narayan, said even being convicted of that small fine can have big consequences — especially for people who can’t afford an attorney.

“When people can afford people like me to defend them against these low-level marijuana cases, we quickly amend it to a charge like littering and they go on with their lives like nothing’s happened,” Narayan said. “When someone can’t afford someone like me, these have devastating lifelong consequences.

“These municipal offenses affect housing, they affect student loans, they affect scholarships, and they affect people’s immigration statuses,” he added.

Committee reaction

Some members of the Board’s Legislation Committee were skeptical of Green’s proposal. That included the committee’s chairman, Joe Vaccaro.

The 23rd Ward alderman, who said he used drugs when he was younger, is more comfortable with the state regulating the drug.

“Even in the case of marijuana, if somebody’s growing it and giving it to friends, you don’t know what it’s laced with,” Vaccaro said. “If it’s controlled in the state, you’re going to get the right stuff. But what if they’re lacing it with fentanyl? ‘Hey there, we got some really killer weed man.’ Because that’s what we did. You don’t know what you’re smoking. And I just have a lot of reservations about it.”

Vaccaro said he wants to hear from St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden about the measure. He said he did “learn a lot” from listening to testimony from attorneys, public health experts and marijuana legalization advocates.

“I do see some good in this,” he said. “But at the same time, I still don’t support the bill.”

Committee members didn’t vote on Green’s legislation. The legislation comes as both the Missouri General Assembly and some groups circulating initiative petitions are seeking to legalize medical marijuana.