Bill restricting tournaments weeded out

Friday, March 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:36 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

High school athletic tournaments will go on in Columbia.

At least for now.

Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, has decided to withdraw a proposed bill that would prevent public school tournaments from being held in Columbia because of its marijuana ordinances. In return, a warning letter will be sent to high school athletic teams by the Missouri State High School Activities Association. Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, announced the compromise at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

“We’ll be able to satisfy most of Senator Gross’ concerns, and make sure that students coming here will know that it’s not legal to smoke marijuana in Columbia,” Graham said at the press conference.

The letter says, “It’s important that all visitors, including students, recognize that use or possession of marijuana remains illegal and the new ordinances merely modified the potential penalties.”

Gross said he will still try to pass the bill, but not right away.

“I will not pursue the bill in the immediate future,” Gross said, adding that he still believes “Columbia should rescind the ordinance.”

Last November, Columbia voters approved two ordinances that allow the use of marijuana for medical purpose prescribed by a physician, and also limit the punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a fine of $250.

Senate Bill 197, proposed by Gross in January, would forbid any elementary school or high school sports events from taking place in a city tolerant of marijuana use. Columbia is the only city in Missouri that bill would apply to.

Gross said the ordinances sent the wrong message to young people.

“We don’t want kids coming to Columbia to think drug use would be OK here,” he said.

In a public hearing conducted by the Senate Education Committee in mid-February, Gross modified the language of the bill so it was limited to tournaments, not all sporting events.

Even so, the proposed bill would be a huge blow to businesses in Columbia if passed. Lorah Steiner, director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the high school basketball tournaments taking place this past weekend and this weekend will bring $3 million in revenue to Columbia, and the wrestling tournaments in February generated more than $1 million.

“The economic benefit to Columbia from (MSHSAA) tournaments was threatened by the bill,” Steiner said. “Any change in that proposal would certainly be welcomed.”

Basketball teams that will compete at Mizzou Arena in the state semifinals and finals this weekend have all received the letter with clarification from MSHSAA. The association will send similar letters in the future to athletic teams competing in the city.

Gross said the letter is a good start, but not enough.

“It needs to be supported by coaches, school officials and parents,” he said. “It takes effort of everybody.”

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