This article has been updated to include details of Columbia's current marijuana policy and the proposed amendment.
COLUMBIA — Most of the people who spoke during Thursday's meeting between the Board of Health and the Substance Abuse Advisory Commission supported expanding access to medical marijuana.
Columbia's current marijuana policy decriminalizes the possession and use of medical marijuana by seriously ill adults as long as they have a doctor's recommendation. Adults caught with up to 35 grams of marijuana are subject to a fine but not criminal charges.
• Remove penalties for seriously ill people who cultivate up to six marijuana plants for medicinal purposes if they have a recommendation from a physician.
• Change the wording in the medical marijuana policy from "adults" to "people."
• Limit the penalty for adults growing up to six medical marijuana plants without a doctor's recommendation to a fine of $250.
Bill O'Toole said the marijuana debate "isn't complicated." The 62-year-old could be dead, he said, if he hadn't used the plant illegally. He admitted that he committed "many felonies" during the past month when he traded his prescription medication for marijuana, distilled it into an oil and consumed "copious amounts" for three weeks.
"A month ago I had liver cancer, but today I don't," O'Toole said. "For three weeks, I had clear MRIs. I can get the doctors to document it for you if you want. It's that simple."
MU student Duell Lauderdale took issue with perceived dangers of marijuana.
"Alcohol can kill people, put them in the hospital, make them brain dead," Lauderdale said. "As a society, we are a little insane to not recognize the fact that cannabis is safer than alcohol."
Aaron Malin said that a 2004 ordinance that decriminalized misdemeanor marijuana possession cases was much more radical.
"But you can hear the same exact things being said — youth use rates will go through the roof, there will be problems with people distributing it illegally — but none of these things have come true," Malin said. "The scare stories didn't come true last time, and I don't think they will come true this time, either."
Others spoke about marijuana stopping a young woman from committing suicide, easing the pain of endometriosis and treating Hepatitis C — but not everyone was convinced.
Heather Harlan, a prevention specialist at Phoenix Programs Inc., pulled an empty chair next to the podium as she spoke to represent the people absent from the meeting.
"This ordinance is not a thought-out move in the public health for our community," she said, sharing the story of a teenager who gave up gymnastics to "hang out" and smoke marijuana with her friends.
Ryan Worley, a father of three and a pastor at Karis Church, believed marijuana would negatively affect the community's youths.
"If we want to help sick people, we should give them a medicine that has met the FDA standards, not marijuana to be smoked," Worley said.
Columbia City Council members requested the meeting in April when the proposed amendment was tabled in a 5-2 decision. Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said it was important for council members to get a perspective from the Board of Health and Substance Abuse Advisory commission. The Disabilities Commission has also been asked to weigh in.
One thing was made clear at the meeting: education on the topic is lacking. Board members, commissioners and members of the public said they were unsure whether marijuana was addictive, what health problems it could cause and how much each plant could yield.
Peter Beiger urged board members and commissioners, as well as residents in attendance, to read Jack Herer's "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," which he said was an informational text on marijuana that was anything but threatening.
"You name the ingredient, and 10 percent of the population will be addicted," Beiger said. "Sugar, Coca-Cola — it's easy to become addicted."
The next meeting will be held June 12 and will include law enforcement and medical experts. Board members and commissioners have until the City Council's Aug. 4 meeting to draft a report on their thoughts and findings.
"People currently have two choices: buy marijuana from drug dealers, who my be dealing more dangerous substances, or grow it," Viets said. "Other than stealing it, I can't think of any other way people can obtain marijuana, and there's no likelihood of becoming a drug-free society in the foreseeable future."
Supervising editor is Adam Aton.