Chris Kelly's bill would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in Missouri

Monday, March 10, 2014 | 10:53 p.m. CDT; updated 11:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 11, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY — A House bill would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in the state of Missouri.

Under Rep. Chris Kelly's HB 1659, if you're 21 or older you can possess, smoke, sell and distribute marijuana. But you can't drive under its influence. And the state could impose a 25 percent excise tax. 

The state would still have the authority to prohibit imports and exports across Missouri's borders, along with selling the substance within 1,000 feet of any school, college or university where students are primarily under 21 years of age. 

Although the conversation began with the question of positive economic returns, less-preoccupied law enforcement and revenue from taxes on marijuana, it quickly changed. Committee members set the pace by focusing on helping those who would benefit from medical marijuana and looking unfavorably upon full legalization. 

Kelly, D-Columbia, kicked the hearing off on a light note, saying, "Some of my helpers baked some brownies for the committee." That garnered a few laughs, and then he got serious.

"I had a good time with this bill," Kelly said. "There is a lot of humor in the subject. I want you to know that I am deadly serious about this subject." 

Kelly pointed out that he used to oppose the legalization of marijuana, but this changed during the seven years he spent as a judge. 

"I saw too many young people whose lives were ruined for convictions of small amounts of marijuana," he said. Kelly argued that law enforcement have been kept from responding to serious issues, such as domestic violence, because they spend a lot of time responding to drug cases. One of his top concerns is what he thinks is inappropriate use of law enforcement. 

He also cited Colorado's expectation of more than $100 million in tax revenue this year  since legalizing marijuana. Kelly likened the laws against marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol, stating that it is inefficient and ineffective policymaking. 

"It doesn't mean I condone its use," Kelly said. "Same experience that we had with marijuana that we had with alcohol. Prohibition didn't stop people."

Rep. Ken Wilson, R-Smithville,  voiced concerns dealing with secondhand smoke, especially in regards to small children.   

"Where does personal responsibility come into play?" Wilson said. "This is against the law, and yet people are violating the law."

Columbia attorney Dan Viets pointed out that the bill isn't pro-marijuana, but rather, it would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. He cited more than $200 million a year that could be added to the state's coffers, according to an audit. Viets argued that prohibition subsidizes dealers by keeping prices and profits high and those who deal don't pay taxes. 

Viets argued that states that have legalized the drug have no more marijuana use than Missouri. He concludes then that driving under the influence and secondhand smoke, along with similar issues, would be no worse if Missouri legalized the drug. 

Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge, said this couldn't be known because it is not known how many people use marijuana in Missouri now. 

Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles cited studies from Colorado's Department of Transportation's fatality analysis reporting system stating that during the period when medical marijuana use was legal , the percentage of fatalities from driving under the influence rose from 5 percent to 13 percent. 

Two families with young boys also testified in favor of medical marijuana.

Both boys have rare diseases. Brady Johnson's son is 10 years old and has diprosopus, or cranial duplication. Heidi Rayl's son, Zayden, 4, has MCSZ, a genetic abnormality. 

After hearing heartrending stories of daily resuscitation and hundreds of seizures each day, of spending many hundreds of dollars on medications and surgeries only to meet failure — after all of this, committee members acceded that medical marijuana legislation might find its place in the legislature this year.

"He's my son," Brandy Johnson's mother said. "I'm going to do everything in my power for him. If somebody wants to be stoned, whatever; I'm here because my son needs this." 

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis,explained to Johnson that advocating legalization is not in her best interest; if proponents want any change to the Missouri marijuana laws, they need to start with medical policy. He fears that a push for decriminalization will fail, and with it, any near hope of medical marijuana in the state. 

Rayl attested that she and her family are pushing for this bill because even with legalization of medical marijuana, it's still hundreds of dollars a month for the treatment her son needs. Legalization would allow her family to grow their own plants, take them to a juicer and have the oil ready for her son. 

Rep. Linda Black, D-Desloge, agreed with Colona: Pushing too hard for full legalization would put medical marijuana legalization off for 10 years. 

"These people are the ones who are going to suffer," Black said.

The topic of synthetic marijuana was added to the bill but was not discussed. 

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