Forty-six percent of college-age teens have tried marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Missouri House of Representatives Bill 512 (HB 512) would minimize the consequences to those caught with misdemeanor amounts of the drug.
Missouri House Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Boone), is co-sponsoring the bill. Kelly doesn’t think the repercussions young people face from charges of small amounts of marijuana possession are fair.
“You get a misdemeanor for this (marijuana possession), and all the sudden no student loan, no job, no apartment; it’s ridiculous,” Kelly said.
Kelly doesn’t expect the bill to pass, but hopes it will spark the discussion for decriminalization, and eventually legalization, of marijuana.
If HB 512 passes, a person with less than 35 grams of marijuana would receive a misdemeanor, a $250 charge and a summons to appear in court. No arrests would be made. The bill suggests community service and/or drug counseling to expunge the misdemeanor possession charges.
Currently, possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana results in a class A misdemeanor with a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Sgt. Jason Grellner, vice president of the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, said legislators should be less concerned with decriminalizing marijuana, and more concerned with rehabilitating users. Grellner said this is something HB 512 lacks.
“It’s basically a foot in the door for the legalizers,” Grellner said. “If they were truly worried about the individuals being caught with small amounts of marijuana, they would have put more wording in the bill that would assist individuals in rehabilitation and ending their addiction.”
Kelly said keeping marijuana illegal simply isn’t working.
“I think the country is quickly coming to realize that the war on drugs as it applies to marijuana has been unsuccessful,” Kelly said. “Too many young people’s lives are ruined for what we call crimes, which we’ve been completely unsuccessful at suppressing.”
According to a Pew Research Center poll presented last November, 45 percent of respondents support the legalization marijuana. This is a number that has increased exponentially over the last 10 years.
Grellner acknowledged that potency and usage of marijuana is on the rise but said legalizing would only raise usage rates.
“When you decriminalize or legalize a substance, because the government is involved in that process, the user registers the substance as safe,” Grellner said. “When the perception is that things are safe, use goes up.”
Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said he would like to see marijuana legalized, taxed and treated in a manner similar to alcohol.
Grellner said comparing marijuana to alcohol is apples and oranges, for one key reason. There is not a test for marijuana that is comparable to a blood alcohol test.
“When is the last time your child’s bus driver should have smoked a joint?” Grellner asked. “When is the last time your surgeon should have smoked marijuana? When is the last time the airplane pilot should have taken a toke? Nobody can answer those questions,” Grellner said.
Grellner said the states that have legalized marijuana are dealing with these questions unsuccessfully.
“If you look at what’s going on in Colorado and Washington right now, because none of those questions can be answered, it’s a huge mess,” Grellner said. “Decriminalization is not the answer.”
Colorado and Washington both passed bills to legalize marijuana last November.
Riffle agreed that HB 512 probably won’t pass in Missouri, but said state legislation is the first step to nationwide legalization.
“The federal government is not going to move unless they get the will to move from the states,” Riffle said.
According to MMP, 18 states have passed laws that either legalize marijuana, decriminalize it or permit it for medical use.
“We’re not going to legalize marijuana nationwide tomorrow,” Riffle said. “But we’re a hell of a lot closer than we were 20 or 30 years ago.”