Advocates want medicinal pot on the state agenda

Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:39 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Advocates of marijuana reform are hoping to follow up their success in Columbia with a statewide law to protect medicinal users of the drug. But while local residents overwhelmingly supported medical marijuana at the ballot box, taking the law statewide will be difficult.

“It will be an uphill fight, but it’s possible,” said Dan Viets, a board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We clearly had a lot of support for Proposition 1 from Republican voters, and there are many Republicans — I’m sure — in the legislature who recognize the importance of marijuana as a medicine.”

Nearly 70 percent of local voters approved a ballot measure Nov. 2 that protects users of marijuana from city prosecution if they have written permission from a doctor. However, they still can be prosecuted by the state.

Eleven other states already have passed laws that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard a case that will determine whether patients in those states can face federal prosecution for using marijuana.

If the Supreme Court rules against the states, Viets said, the Missouri medical marijuana movement likely will join an effort to pass a nationwide bill in Congress. For now, though, Viets said lawmakers in both houses of the Missouri General Assembly are considering a bill for a statewide medical marijuana law.

Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis, said she might file a bill, following the work of her colleague, the late Sen. Ronnie DePasco of Kansas City. DePasco began advocating medicinal marijuana after seeing the pain of other cancer patients during his own ordeal with lung cancer.

“I have not decided whether I will present a bill, but I do think it’s worth looking into,” Days said.

While some Republican voters in Columbia may support legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana, the party as a whole will not support such legislation, said Paul Sloca, communications director for the Missouri Republican Party.

“Marijuana is still an illegal drug, so we would be opposed as a party to such a measure,” Sloca said. Even if advocates can overcome opposition to medical marijuana, the authority of a statewide law would depend on how the Supreme Court rules. Krissy Oechslin, assistant director of communications for the nationwide Marijuana Policy Project, said a decision for the federal government would not completely undermine state efforts. If the Supreme Court sides with the federal government, the decision simply will maintain the status quo, Oechslin said.

However, Viets said that if the court decides against the states, he fears the federal government will increase prosecutions of those who grow and distribute marijuana for medical users, further undermining the state laws.

“For the time being, the federal government has been somewhat restrained,” Viets said. “I think they recognize it’s not clear whether they have that authority or not. I think if the Supreme Court gives them a green light, then we can expect probably greater persecution and prosecution.”

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