Bill would reduce marijuana possession penalty throughout Missouri

Thursday, February 7, 2013 | 5:57 p.m. CST; updated 9:56 a.m. CST, Friday, February 15, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY – A bill filed in the House would reduce penalties for marijuana possession in Missouri, effectively setting the same penalties statewide as those already in place in Columbia.

Barring certain exceptions, people who are caught with less than 35 grams of marijuana would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine of no more than $250. Thirty-five grams is about 1.25 ounces.

The bill – sponsored by Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, and seven other Democrats – also would allow individuals to expungethe offense from their record if he or she performs community service and pays the fine.

Having a misdemeanor for marijuana possession on one's criminal record leads to many problems, Ellinger said at a news conference Thursday. Co-sponsor Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and Columbia attorney Dan Viets also attended. 

Ellinger said those convicted of marijuana crimes can have difficulty getting jobs.

"It has terrible ramifications for people, and I don't think that young people should be saddled with that for life," Ellinger said.

Viets, a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws who has been working for years to change marijuana laws, agreed.

"I see it as a defense attorney, affecting so negatively many people that are going to have wonderful careers. One minor mistake holds them up for life," Viets said.

Kelly said current penalties for marijuana possession hurt not only offenders but also taxpayers. He cited the cost to the criminal justice system of prosecuting marijuana offenses and the cost to society of lost productivity.

Kelly, a former associate circuit judge, said penalties for marijuana use are not an effective deterrent.

"It has been a remarkable failure," he said. "We spend so much money, and we make no difference in terms of use. And what we do is ruin hundreds of thousands of people's lives."

Columbia voters passed an ordinance in 2004 instating the same penalties Ellinger's bill seeks for the entire state.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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