Initiatives to reform marijuana laws filed

Tuesday, June 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:52 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Two initiatives seeking to change the way Columbia deals with those who possess small amounts of marijuana were filed Monday with City Clerk Sheela Amin.

Members of the Columbia Alliance for Patients and Education collected nearly 5,000 signatures on each of two petitions, though they needed only 2,276 apiece. The members now must wait up to 10 days while Amin tries to verify whether enough of its signatures are valid. In the meantime, they will continue to gather signatures just in case.

The first petition calls for dismissing charges against people caught with marijuana but whose doctors recommend or approve the use of the drug for medical purposes. Dan Viets, a lawyer and board member of CAPE, said protection is the key to the initiative.

"It provides some protection for patients who need marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor backs it,” Viets said.

The second petition calls for steering misdemeanor marijuana possession cases to Municipal Court, which would retain the power to impose fines of up to $250. The ordinance, however, would prohibit jail time.

“We encourage the prosecutor and the court to defer prosecution and to use alternative sentencing like community service and drug counseling,” Viets said.

Part of the motivation behind the second initiative is to protect students caught with small amounts of marijuana. Those convicted in state courts end up with criminal records that can make them ineligible for student aid from the government.

“The fundamental purpose is to allow people to retain eligibility for federal aid for education,” Viets said.

Viets said CAPE collected nearly 5,000 signatures on each petition as a precautionary measure against invalid signatures because many of the people who sign petitions are not registered or ineligible to vote. The group is paying some of those who are circulating petitions $1 per valid signature.

Voters in April 2003 rejected Proposition 1, which was similar to these initiatives, by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. CAPE hopes the story will play out differently this November.

If enough signatures are verified and the petitions certified, the initiatives would make their way to the Columbia City Council for consideration. If the council fails to pass the initiatives, they will automatically appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

This is what members of CAPE anticipate. Viets said he doesn’t expect the council to pass the controversial political issue.

Viets said the next step will be to determine a strategy on how to persuade the public to support the initiatives.

“We need to let the people know what the issues are,” he said.

The marijuana issues might not be the only initiatives to wind up on the November ballot. Columbians for Clean Energy plans to submit a petition this morning calling on the city to increase amounts of renewable energy, also known as green energy, starting in 2007 and continuing through 2022. Chris Hayday, member of the group, said they have collected about 2,800 signatures since Earth Day.

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