COLUMBIA —The first comprehensive revision of Missouri's criminal laws includes changes to the state's marijuana laws that take effect on Jan. 1.
The revisions were passed by the General Assembly in 2014. They affect drug possession, distribution, trafficking and cultivation.
"It will eliminate the possibility of a jail sentence on the first offense for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana," said Dan Viets, a local attorney focused on defense of marijuana cases and a long-time advocate for reforming marijuana laws.
This revision allows small amounts of marijuana to be considered class D misdemeanors, which carry a maximum fine of $500.
"If you get a conviction, it will still be a criminal conviction, so it’s not decriminalization properly understood," Viets said.
Repeat offenses will remain class A misdemeanors, which carry a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
Before the change, mere possession of 35 grams (1¼ ounces) or less of marijuana was punishable by a year in jail and a fine up to $1,000.
Possession of 35 grams or more is still considered a felony.
"It still does allow for an arrest," Viets said. "Strangely enough, you can be arrested for something that you cannot be sent to jail for. However, we hope and trust that most police officers will not make a full custody arrest, but they may. They may and they can, and some still will."
Viets helped draft the bill. He has been working to change Missouri drug policies for 43 years.
An additional revision to the criminal code eliminates the prior and persistent drug offender law, which allowed judges on a third felony drug-related conviction to sentence an offender to life in prison without the possibility of probation or parole.
"It does not take much to get a felony drug conviction in Missouri," Viets said. "If you — and I’m not exaggerating — share a joint with another person, that can be charged as distribution, I’ve seen it happen."
Viets also said the new bill reduces the maximum punishment by one-third for first-offense cultivation and sale of marijuana.
"If you attempt, don’t even succeed, but you merely attempt to sprout a single seed… If you take a marijuana seed and lay it on a wet paper towel, that is an attempt to cultivate," Viets said. "So it does not take much to get a marijuana felony under Missouri law."
Viets said that change represents important progress. "Currently it’s up to 15 years, now it will 'only' be up to 10 years for the first offense."
The revision also opted out of a law passed in 1996 that banned anyone with a felony drug conviction from receiving food stamps.
In addition to this, the Missouri legislature passed a law that legalizes the use of cannabidiol, a marijuana component, in the medical field.
Viets is president of New Approach Missouri, which is pushing for a 2018 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana. The group expects to begin collecting signatures in January. Viets said the new law is a good thing but more work remains to be done.
"There are many things that are not fixed by this new law," he said. "We’re lucky we got as many changes as we did."
Aaron Ladd, president of the MU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, also called the revisions a step in the right direction.
"One of the missions of our organization is to try and make changes anyway we can, no matter how small the steps may be," he said.
"As far as MU students, I would never condone any illegal drug use, but if they were to ever be in a compromising position, these new laws allow them protections not previously afforded to them."
Ladd added that the changes add "fuel to the fire to continue to keep pushing for more deregulations."
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