JEFFERSON CITY — If the Missouri General Assembly passes a bill that was debated Wednesday, simple possession of any amount of K2 could become a Class C felony, on par with involuntary manslaughter and grand theft.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, would ban substances that mimic the effects of marijuana and that, he said, youths in southern Missouri are accessing with ease.
"I've heard story after story of children being able to purchase this stuff," Franz said. "It's time we deal with this before it becomes a bigger problem."
Franz said he had hoped the bill would come up for a vote, but House Floor Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said the debate ran on too long. Tilley said he would re-introduce the bill after next week's break, but he wasn't sure he had the votes to pass the bill the way it was written.
Tilley said he had heard concerns from Republicans that placing simple K2 possession as a felony would be far too harsh.
"We will see what happens, but I think maybe a felony might be a little harsh for this," Tilley said. "There are a lot of things that we keep as misdemeanors."
On the floor of the House, multiple Democrats said that too many nonviolent offenders were being incarcerated already, and this bill would do nothing but increase that. Under state law, a Class C felony is punishable from anywhere between a fine and seven years in prison, with the added stigma of being a convicted felon.
Rep. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, said Missouri's chief justice recently told lawmakers that incarcerating nonviolent criminals was "perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government" and this legislation would counter those wishes.
*Holsman said he was worried about the implications of making soft drug possession a felony.
"We could be locking up a whole generation of curious kids," Holsman said. "Putting people in prison for minor offenses is not a good thing."
Franz said he welcomed a potential amendment from Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, which would make possession of 35 grams or less a Class A misdemeanor, putting it on par with how the state handles those caught with marijuana. While he said he was fine with the bill as is, he did say lowering the classification levels may help the chances of his bill passing.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who sponsored the Senate version of the K2 ban, however, said he opposes making separate punishments based on the amount an offender is possessing. He said K2 is "much worse than marijuana" and possessors should be punished accordingly.
"There's this misnomer that K2 is just like marijuana or not as bad, when it really is stronger and more unknown," Schaefer said. "We don't have lighter sentences for different amounts of methamphetamines, so we shouldn't have differing sentences for this."
He said his bill wouldn't specifically make K2 possession a Class C felony, only list it on Schedule I of controlled substances. It would be made one by default, however, since possession of 35 grams of marijuana or less is the only Schedule I drug classified below that.
Schaefer's legislation has made it out of committee as well, but there is no timetable for it to be heard and voted on by the full chamber. Both Franz's and Schaefer's bills have emergency clauses attached to them, which means they would become effective immediately after Gov. Jay Nixon signs one into law.
"This needs to be immediate," Schaefer said of a potential K2 ban. "If we think this stuff is bad, we should rid ourselves of it as soon as possible."