A close-up of a marijuana plant at a Minnesota medical marijuana facility in May 2015. (Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune via AP)

New St. Louis bill would allow residents to use and grow marijuana, within limits

ST. LOUIS — A bill filed this week allowing the use, sale and growth of marijuana in St. Louis aims to reduce disproportionate penalties for existing violations and free up time and resources for police to focus on crimes with victims.

The bill, sponsored by Alderwoman Megan Green, 15th Ward, would make it unlawful for the city to enforce any laws that permit “the civil or criminal punishment for the use or possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia against any individual or entity,” except under certain circumstances.

Civil or criminal penalties could be enforced on anyone using marijuana under the age of 21, selling to someone under 21, or anyone possessing more than two ounces of marijuana or more than 10 marijuana plants for cultivation. Under the measure, consumption of marijuana anywhere but on private residential property would be limited.

The proposal would also make it illegal to refuse to hire or terminate someone for legally using marijuana under the parameters of the ordinance.

State lawmakers in Missouri have had little appetite to pass laws decriminalizing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, though in 2014, then-Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill into law that allows the use of hemp oil for children with rare forms of epilepsy.

Supporters of marijuana legalization as a way to offer relief to patients with certain conditions have turned to initiative petitions. A measure that would have allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat patients with diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t make it on the ballot last year, but New Approach Missouri is trying again this year.

In 2013, the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance reducing penalties for those in the city caught with small amounts of marijuana, for many of the same reasons laid out in Green’s bill — freeing up police and prosecutor resources to focus on more serious crimes, while helping offenders avoid the heavier costs associated with state court.

Championed by 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn, that ordinance gives police the option to issue court summonses to first- and second-time offenders who are caught with less than 35 grams of pot, essentially turning a criminal infraction into a municipal one. Those arrested could be released with a court summons instead of being booked in city jail.

Green’s bill goes further; it would repeal and replace the city’s existing marijuana ordinance.

Before any St. Louis ordinances were passed, city police charged offenders under state law, but supporters of the new plan argue federal law prohibiting marijuana makes the enforcement of state laws redundant.

A recent revision of Missouri’s criminal code eased the criminal penalties for marijuana possession, eliminating jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana.

Green says she will continue to gather support for the bill in the coming weeks, but that she’s been working with attorneys on the legislation since last March, passing it back and forth to five different lawyers to make sure the language could survive a potential court challenge.

“I think we’ve finally got to a bill where there’s a legal consensus on what we can do,” she said.

Information from St. Louis Post-Dispatch