A trio of Democratic Missouri legislators is seeking to lessen the penalty of people caught with a small amount of marijuana with a bill that was introduced Feb. 7.
House Bill 512, sponsored by Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, is modeled after a similar ordinance in Columbia.
In Columbia, people found guilty of possessing 35 grams or less of marijuana are punished with a $250 fine and suspended sentence rather than being charged with a Class A misdemeanor.
Ellinger and the bill’s other sponsors are seeking to expand the ordinance in Columbia to reach the entire state of Missouri.
Under the new law, if a person is found with 35 grams or less — about 10 joints, Ellinger said — and are not suspected of selling the controlled substance, the person would be fined a $250 fee and be given a suspended sentence similar to the ordinance implemented in Columbia.
Missouri law currently requires violators in possession of that amount of marijuana to be fined $1,000 and serve up to a year in jail.
Ellinger said he believes the new law would be more humane and result in a decrease of arrest records. He said he wants the system in Columbia to be implemented statewide.
“It would be like driving through a stop sign,” Ellinger said. “The officer would just write a ticket, and the guilty person would hopefully get a lawyer, go to court and plead guilty. They would probably receive a sentence of community service and pay the fine.”
With a Suspended Imposition of Sentence, if the convicted completes his or her probation within the time frame given by the court, the record would be sealed. Under the SIS, the misdemeanor would be wiped from all criminal records.
But there are exceptions to the law. If the guilty person is found guilty of a felony 10 years prior; guilty of Class A misdemeanor other than the possession of marijuana five years prior; or found guilty in a state or municipal court of a marijuana misdemeanor on two or more occasions within the past five years, then the sentence given could be worse.
Ellinger said the bill does not legalize marijuana nor does he propose the legalization of the substance without more studies being conducted.
“It is an illegal substance, no more harmful than tobacco and alcohol,” Ellinger said. “But people get their lives messed up. They can’t apply for jobs as teachers or work with children. They can’t get food stamps later if they need them because of the conviction.”
With marijuana already legalized in Colorado and Washington, Ellinger said there is little opposition to the proposed bill.
“Most people realize that many states are legalizing and beginning to tax marijuana,” Ellinger said. “Columbia has had this ordinance in effect for eight and a half years and it has been working there.”
The other lawmakers in the trio who support the bill include Rep. Chris Kelly, D- Columbia, and Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills.
Ellinger has also introduced another bill that would expand the list of misdemeanors that can be expunged from criminal records. HB511 increases the surcharge from $100 to $500 on petitions for expungement. The goal of these two bills is to keep first-time offenders out of jail and help youth get jobs later in life without a blot on their criminal record.
Ellinger said he believes the proposed legislation would lessen the impact of marijuana charges on young kids.
“It’s a harmful thing to live with that leads to a lifetime of trouble,” Ellinger said.