COLUMBIA — Marijuana advocates are setting their sights on several Missouri cities as possible battlegrounds next year in the escalating debate over decriminalization of the recreational drug.
A 2008 effort to collect enough voter signatures for a decriminalization initiative in the southwest Missouri town of Joplin fell 531 names short. Now organizers of that effort are looking at several possible locations to try again in 2010.
Joplin activist Kelly Maddy told The Associated Press that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is eyeing Springfield in southwest Missouri, Blue Springs in suburban Kansas City and Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri for future campaigns. A final decision isn't expected until later this year, when activists likely will select one city where they can concentrate their efforts.
"We want to make it a high-impact city where we can have the greatest impact on the state," Maddy said.
The renewed interest in changing marijuana laws in Missouri comes as national discussions about easing prohibitions on pot increase.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently suggested that his cash-strapped state consider legalizing marijuana and then taxing sales to boost government revenue. And recent surveys by Zogby International and ABC/The Washington Post show that roughly half of those polled favor legalization.
"It's a topic that has been suppressed for too long," said Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive director. "We have turned a corner now."
Voters in the Missouri college town of Columbia turned that corner in 2004, handily approving a measure that classifies possession of 35 grams of marijuana or less as a low-level misdemeanor offense subject to municipal court fines of no more than $250, similar to the type of punishment one might receive for a speeding ticket. The conviction is dropped if the offender stays out of legal trouble for another year. Repeat offenders and those with felony convictions are exempt.
A related measure that allows seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana within the city limits was approved by nearly 70 percent of Columbia voters.
Elsewhere in Missouri, the tiny town of Cliff Village near Joplin approved a medical marijuana ordinance earlier this year in a largely symbolic gesture. And activists in St. Louis are working to collect the 25,000 signatures needed to put a decriminalization measure before the city's voters.
Organizers might also soon target University City, a St. Louis suburb near Washington University, said Joseph Welch, a criminal defense attorney leading the effort.
Across the border in Arkansas, voters in Fayetteville (2008) and Eureka Springs (2006) passed variations of marijuana decriminalization laws. That precedent has Maddy convinced that outwardly conservative communities such as Springfield or Cape Girardeau would similarly endorse pro-pot measures.
"This is not a liberal or conservative issue. It's not a rural versus urban issue," he said.
In Springfield, possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana is already a low-priority misdemeanor offense, said Johnnie Burgess, the city's chief municipal prosecutor.
In 2008, more than 800 people were charged with simple possession, according to city records. Of that number, 543 were convicted of violating the city ordinance, with 124 receiving suspended sentences.
The change occurred in 2004 after Greene County prosecutor Darrell Moore said his office would no longer prosecute such cases in state court.
Still, that doesn't mean police will ignore the law when faced with potential marijuana offenses.
"The police officers are not going to look the other way," Burgess said. "They're going to arrest people for possessing marijuana."