COLUMBIA — Agenda items at Wednesday evening’s Citizens Police Review Board meeting included marijuana regulations, board member Steve Weinberg’s decision to step down and the definition of police officer misconduct.
A motion passed Wednesday night to prevent another hearing about marijuana laws at Citizens Police Review Board meetings. One member said any further concerns about the ordinances should be brought before the City Council instead of the board.
Compromises to the city’s marijuana laws nearly five years ago were intended to quell discord, but Columbia is still grappling with their interpretation.
Dan Viets, a local defense attorney who helped craft the compromise, disagreed with invited guest speakers Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton, city prosecutor Stephen Richey and assistant county prosecutor Ryan Haigh concerning whether marijuana ordinances were enforced as written.
Burton, Richey and Haigh each said they believed the ordinances were being carried out per the design of the 2006 compromise.
Richey and Haigh said misdemeanor cases were handled in municipal court as intended by the revised ordinances.
Burton said the Columbia Police Department did not actively seek misdemeanor possession cases, though it did issue citations if they were discovered. It does, however, treat felony amounts of marijuana possession as a higher priority.
However, Viets said that the wording of the ordinance that decrees marijuana laws “among the lower priorities of law enforcement” was not restricted to only misdemeanor marijuana possession cases.
In November 2004, Columbia voters passed new ordinances that stated that the enforcement of marijuana laws would be “the lowest law enforcement priority.”
Nearly 62 percent of voters agreed the city should classify the possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana as a Class A misdemeanor, meaning those cases would be referred to municipal court rather than state court.
Nearly 70 percent of Columbia voters approved the allowance of medical marijuana for serious illnesses.
The City Council revised these ordinances in 2006 at the request of the Columbia Police Officers Association, which worked with the Columbia Alliance for Patients and Education to develop a policy compromise.
The compromise called for a revision ranking enforcement of marijuana laws “among the lower priorities of law enforcement” rather than “the lowest law enforcement priority.” It also requested the deletion of a policy that deferred prosecution in cases of marijuana possession of 35 grams or less.
The new ordinances also allowed cases to be prosecuted in state court if the offender were caught with marijuana while committing another offense, had been found guilty of a felony in the last decade, had two or more marijuana misdemeanors in the last five years or had any misdemeanors unrelated to marijuana in the last five years.
The council approved the compromise at a meeting on Feb. 20, 2006, thus updating the city laws. Some contention about the laws has continued.
Another meeting topic was the departure of board member Steve Weinberg. He attended the session Wednesday evening but said in an interview earlier that day that he was stepping down because caring for his elderly parents unexpectedly required much of his time.
The board’s chairwoman, Ellen LoCurto-Martinez, said three candidates had applied to the council for the spot, but a decision had not yet been made.
A final meeting topic included Police Chief Ken Burton's suggestion that the board refer to the code of conduct which has been used by the Columbia Police Department when investigating complaints from citizens. He said the move would help create common ground between the police and the review board.
Burton also said that he doesn't want to narrow the current definition used by the board. "If you have input, let's put it into policy," he said.
The board's staff liaison, Rose Wibbenmeyer, said they didn't receive the code during the meeting, but they are supposed to get copies from police soon.
John McClure, a member with the Citizen Police Review Board, said it would be good if both sides have a common ground but will wait "until we see it."