For those in attendance last week at the Columbia Public Library, the panel discussion of statewide marijuana legalization was an emotional one.
“I’m painful,” one woman told the crowd. “I’m painful all the time. I wish you would get it decriminalized and legalized so that I can have a joint. I’m afraid to have one because a SWAT team could end up on my porch.”
Her words came on the heels of an impassioned series of arguments by a panel of local figures. Among those was Dan Viets, the evening’s moderator and the Missouri coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Viets spoke alongside state Reps. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and Rory Ellinger, D-St. Louis, Columbia Daily Tribune publisher emeritus Hank Waters and Tribune columnist Bob Roper. The panel spent much of the evening championing marijuana policy reform — namely, statewide legalization and decriminalization.
A criminal defense attorney and a cannabis activist since his time at MU in the early 1970s, Viets made the case for legislation that would legalize and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. In an interview, he specified that users would have to be 21 years or older and could cultivate a half dozen or more plants.
Viets’ assertions, however, were not enough to fully assure Kelly of the movement’s legislative potential. Kelly expressed uncertainty as to whether statehouse politicians would pass a legalization or decriminalization bill should he or Ellinger formally introduce one.
At present, marijuana possession, use and distribution are illegal in all cases throughout Missouri and the nation. In 2004, Columbia passed Proposition 2, which relaxed cannabis possession sentencing, but the state, Viets noted at the meeting, has yet to vote on changes to medical or recreational cannabis policy.
Ellinger, who introduced a decriminalization bill of his own last winter, cited Missouri’s “three strikes” law as problematic. That law provides sentencing guidelines that incur harsher penalties, up to a life sentence, after an offender’s third felony.
“And it’s real easy to have a felony amount of marijuana,” Ellinger said in his opening remarks. “It wrecks people’s lives for momentary pleasure.”
If such legislation went into effect, Missouri would join Colorado and Washington in allowing recreational marijuana use. Those two states passed ballot initiatives last year to fully legalize recreational cannabis, more than a decade after each had authorized medicinal marijuana possession and use for patients with debilitating conditions.
To detractors, Viets cited the examples of Oregon, which decriminalized marijuana possession in 1973, and Alaska, whose state Supreme Court in the 1975 case of Ravin v. State made possession of small amounts of marijuana legal in a private residence.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited at the forum, both states were home to a number of cannabis smokers higher than the national average, though the amount of marijuana smoked remained consistent with national trends.
Missouri, Viets said in his introductory speech, would be no different.
“We don’t have to wring our hands and wonder what might happen if we were to decriminalize marijuana possession in Missouri,” Viets said. “What happens is, nothing happens. Nothing changes. There is, most importantly, no increase in marijuana use.”
Anticipating the bill’s failure in the General Assembly, Kelly suggested a ballot initiative. Yet even then, he doubted the effectiveness and preparedness of advocacy groups like Viets’ NORML or Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, both of which sponsored the night’s meeting, to get the measure on the ballot.
“None of my questions are philosophical,” Kelly said. “‘Should marijuana be legal or not?’ That’s over in my head. The only questions for me are practical.”
In a tense exchange at the meeting, Kelly made those doubts apparent.
“One of the things that I want to know that I don’t know yet or I’m not comfortable with is, ‘Are the proponents objectively prepared to go to the mat with the electorate?’” Kelly asked.
“Yes,” Viets answered.
“You are ready? Well, I want to see it,” Kelly said. “Saying you’re ready and showing me you’re ready are two entirely different things.”
Kelly specified that the campaign, not the message, was something that would take time and careful planning.
“As to this particular legislation,” Kelly said, “it would be very counterproductive to put the question on the ballot if the proponents were not prepared to conduct a campaign. For me, at least, I have to be comfortable that they’re prepared to conduct the campaign.”