As Columbia considers decriminalizing marijuana cultivation, advocates see it as a step toward eliminating what they see as a social injustice.
An amendment to city code, which was introduced at Monday night’s City Council meeting, would allow Columbia residents to possess up to six marijuana plants without the penalty of arrest or any jail time. Those with serious illnesses would face no punishment, while others could still be fined up to $250. The law would not apply to anyone selling or distributing marijuana, only to personal use.
Dan Viets, a defense attorney in Columbia, wrote the amendment and has been working with its sponsor, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, to get it passed. He works with several organizations that advocate for legalization, including the Missouri branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana and Show-Me Cannabis.
“I believe that marijuana prohibition is a horrible evil,” said Viets, who compared it to slavery in its effects on African Americans. “We have put massive numbers of our fellow Americans in jail.”
In 2004, Columbia passed a law to decriminalize marijuana possession and eliminate penalties for medical use. This new amendment follows the same format, expanding it to growing plants as well. Viets said his ultimate goal would be to “tax and regulate” marijuana, which he described as less risky than other legal substances like tobacco and alcohol.
“It’s nontoxic. No one has ever died from consuming marijuana,” Viets said.
In the medical community, the effects of recreational marijuana use are still being debated. Some studies have tied it to many of the same adverse health effects as tobacco smoking.
John Payne, the executive director of marijuana advocacy organization Show-Me Cannabis, described the amendment as “an important step forward.” His primary concern is for those with medical conditions sometimes treated with marijuana and THC, its active ingredient.
“These are people that, without cannabis, have a very low quality of life,” Payne said.
Proponents of medical marijuana say uses can include helping HIV/AIDS and cancer patients regain their appetites, treating glaucoma and potentially reducing the symptoms of conditions like epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome.
Payne became interested in marijuana legalization in high school when he read Mike Gray’s book “Drug Crazy,” a critique of the war on drugs.
“I was already for legalizing weed in high school, but that was just because I smoked weed in high school,” Payne said.
The book changed Payne’s perspective. Payne said he now sees legalization as “a real matter of basic morality. This war on drugs is a war on people, really, without much end.”
In council notes, Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the city legal team found the bill to be inconsistent with federal and state policies on marijuana enforcement, which prescribe harsher penalties. The amendment can still go into effect if state and national governments do not choose to challenge it in court.
“The rest of the state looks to Columbia to be progressive,” Viets said.
Payne said he thought Columbia was able to pass the amendment, unlike the rest of Missouri, because MU is here.
“There’s a large number of young people who are educated and want to question the status quo,” Payne said.
Viets said the people he works with as a defense attorney do not represent any danger to the community.
“The typical client is a model citizen — hard-working, responsible, intelligent,” Viets said. “Just like you and me.”
Both Viets and Payne said they expect the amendment to pass. Before voting on or even discussing the amendment, council will give a second read to the amendment and allow for public input on the issue.