Proposal targets lenient pot laws

A proposal would ban public school athletic meets in Columbia.
Thursday, January 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:25 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Columbia will pay a price for easing restrictions on marijuana prosecutions under a bill proposed by a St. Charles legislator.

Republican State Sen. Chuck Gross proposed legislation Wednesday that would prohibit public schools from holding athletic tournaments in Columbia.

Gross’ proposal comes in response to two measures the city’s voters approved in November. One makes marijuana arrests the lowest priority of city law enforcement, and the other allows marijuana to be used in the city for medical reasons.

The legislation proposed by Gross would bar schools that receive state money from participating in “sporting events or athletic tournaments” in cities with marijuana laws similar to Columbia’s.

The intent is not to prohibit Columbia schools from taking part in sports but to block regional or state tournaments from being held in the city, Gross said.

“I think it’s a bad message to send off to kids — ‘Hey, come to Columbia, you can bring your pot with you,’” Gross said.

Athletic tournaments are big business for Columbia. Chamber of Commerce President Don Laird said he doubts the bill will become law. He said sports tournaments generate millions of dollars in economic activity for Columbia.

“Those types of things are very important to us,” Laird said. “It would be very damaging to Columbia.”

Laird said the proposal is the first potential economic fallout he is aware of as a result of the pot measures passing.

Ed Baker, a member of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau Advisory Board, said the economic impact of the bill would be devastating to both tourism and retail sales in Columbia.

The state basketball tournament brings nearly $3 million a year to Columbia and the state wrestling tournament more than $1 million. In total, high school activities generate $5 million in economic impact for the city every year, said Lorah Steiner, executive director the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Steiner said she won’t comment on Gross' bill until she reads it.

Dan Viets, a Columbia attorney and leading proponent of the new marijuana policies, called the bill “mean-spirited” but said he’s not worried.

“I think what he’s targeted is every school district in the state of Missouri,” Viets said. “I feel sorry for the kids that might lose their opportunity to do what they want to do.”

Baker said he can’t judge the senator’s intention or whether the bill is right or wrong but said there might be a “higher good.”

“The bill might make Columbia people take a second look at their stance or repeal the new law,” Baker said. “He might think we send the wrong message to children, like holding a little bit of marijuana will be OK.”

Columbia voters overwhelmingly approved the two marijuana initiatives on Nov. 2. One requires that arrests for possession of less than 35 grams of pot be handled in municipal court rather than state court. The maximum penalty is a $250 fine with no jail time. In state court, the same charge packs a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.

The other ordinance allows seriously ill patients, with their doctors’ permission, to use marijuana.

No other Missouri community has anything similar on the books, and marijuana possession remains a state crime.

Missourian reporter Xin Li contributed to this report.

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