Springfield officials sued over marijuana petition

Thursday, July 25, 2013 | 4:21 p.m. CDT; updated 5:02 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 25, 2013

SPRINGFIELD — Supporters of an effort to reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana are suing Springfield and city officials over their handling of a petition seeking to put the issue to a public vote.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses current and former members of the Springfield City Council, City Manager Greg Burris and the city of violating the constitutional rights of supporters by passing then quickly repealing a citizen petition to lower marijuana penalties, The Springfield News-Leader reported.

The petition sought to remove criminal penalties for first- or second-time offenders who have up to 35 grams of marijuana. Offenders would instead be subjected to fines, community service and/or drug education programs.

Proponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a public vote in August 2012 but the council members declined to put it on the ballot. Instead, the council approved the petition and then repealed it two weeks later, avoiding an election on the issue.

The lawsuit was filed by Maranda Reynolds, who helped organize the Springfield petition effort, and nonprofit groups Show-Me Cannabis Regulation and American Victory Coalition, based in Oregon. Both groups provided funds for the petition drive.

Springfield law enforcement opposed the lower penalties and the city's legal staff argued that some provisions conflicted with state law. In May, the council rejected an alternative proposal that eliminated some of those provisions.

Springfield's city charter requires the council to either adopt a successful petition or send it to a public vote. City Attorney Dan Wichmer has said the council's actions were legal.

The lawsuit, however, calls it "an illegal attempt to circumvent the intent" of the charter petition process on the grounds that council members "cannot do indirectly what (they) are forbidden from doing directly." Supporters also note that no other petition has been adopted and repealed in its entirety within weeks of passage since the city charter was adopted in 1953.

The lawsuit asks a court to put the ordinance to a public vote in either November 2014 or November 2016.

City spokeswoman Cora Scott said the city attorney had not had a chance to read the lawsuit. But she said the city believes the city charter allows council members to pass and repeal petitions.

She said that when council initially adopted the marijuana petition "it was the intention to make amendments to remove illegal portions," but that council members could not agree on amendments and decided instead to repeal the complete ordinance.

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