Effort to relax marijuana penalties could reach Kansas City USA

BY DONALD BRADLEY (The Kansas City Star) Could Kansas City be next in Missouri to lighten up on lighting up?

In 2004, Columbia residents passed a measure that greatly relaxed penalties for marijuana smoking and possession. The advocacy group Show-Me Cannabis Regulation said last week that it may soon mount similar efforts in Kansas City and Springfield.

“We think those are incremental steps that could really help in getting a statewide measure passed,” said Amber Langston, the group’s campaign director and leader of the Columbia effort.

A petition drive earlier this year fell short of getting the necessary number of signatures to get a statewide initiative on the November ballot. But Langston said that was due more to lack of resources than lack of support. It takes money and foot soldiers to collect 145,000 signatures.

“This state is a lot closer than people think,” said Langston, who has served as an outreach director and international liaison for Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, D.C., and worked on marijuana initiatives in California.

In Columbia in November 2004, 62 percent of voters approved making marijuana the “lowest law enforcement priority.”

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it is dangerous and has no health benefit. But now, because of states’ legislation and voter referendums, roughly 30 percent of Americans live where penalties for pot use have been greatly relaxed, either through medical marijuana statutes or decriminalization for possession of small amounts.

Connecticut is set to become the 17th state, along with the District of Columbia, to snub Washington on this issue.

The Show-Me organization is now thinking of another statewide push in November 2014.

John Hagan III, a Kansas City ophthalmologist and staunch opponent of easing of marijuana laws, is already firing back. It’s illegal for good reason, he said.

“Every study so far shows far more detrimental effects than anything beneficial,” said Hagan, editor of Missouri Medicine magazine, in which he recently wrote an editorial that attacked any effort to “make Mary Jane an honest woman.”

“Just because more states are doing it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight it,” Hagan said.

A brief history

It is a debate that has played out often in recent years across the country as more states have loosened the laws.

Opponents say marijuana is addictive, dangerous and can lead to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Proponents of change say legal weed means jobs, industrial hemp and tax revenue. Also, police would be freed up to focus on serious crime.

Not long ago on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” viewers saw U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and columnist George Will mix it up.

“If somebody wants to smoke marijuana and they’re an adult, why do you want to throw ‘em in jail, George?” Frank asked.

“I need to know more about it,” Will said. “I need to know if it’s a gateway drug.”

Frank asked him how long he needed.

“It’s been around a long time,” Frank said.

In 1937, a year after “Reefer Madness” warned parents that teenage smoking of pot would lead to sexual assault and suicide, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation outlawing the use, production and sale of the plant.

Turned out to be a bit premature. In 1941, Roosevelt signed an executive order rescinding part of the earlier law because the war effort needed hemp for rope and canvas.

But as soon as the war ended in 1945, the ban went back into effect. Midwest farmers, under threat of fines and penalties, plowed under their hemp crops.

On its website, NORML, a national organization working for the repeal of marijuana prohibition, has a timeline for marijuana reform. Perhaps not surprising, there are no entries for the entire decade of the 1950s.

Then came the culture wars of the 1960s. Smoking pot became part of college life. Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice hit the pipe. Bob Dylan sang, “Everybody must get stoned …”

In 1970, public interest lawyer R. Keith Stroup founded NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Three years later, Oregon became the first state to pass cannabis decriminalization.

Since 2000, 11 states have passed various medical marijuana laws, which permit patients with a variety of ailments to possess pot, and in some cases even allow dispensaries where they can obtain it.

Other states have decreased penalties for amounts generally less than an ounce.

“We’ve largely won the hearts and minds of the American people,” Stroup told The Star.

This despite an Obama administration that has taken a hard line against the medical marijuana industry. After first saying it would end the practice of raiding clinics, the Justice Department later instructed U.S. attorneys to threaten clinic operators in California with criminal charges if they continued to violate federal law.

Obama, in response to critics, said: “We’re not going to be legalizing weed anytime soon. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana — and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law.”

Stroup said: “We are disappointed in the Obama White House. We were hoping the federal government would stay out of it.”

But his map shows what he would call great progress — in other parts of the country. States that have loosened marijuana laws are, for the most part, far out west and way back east.

Michigan is the rare Midwestern state on the list that includes most of New England, the Northwest, the West Coast and the desert Southwest. Colorado is the only neighbor of either Kansas or Missouri on the list. Down in the Deep South, possessing even small amounts of marijuana can still result in high fines and jail time.

The battle in Missouri

As for Missouri, Stroup thinks the state has a solid chance of getting something, either medical or decriminalization, done in the next few years.

“It’s a conservative state, but it’s not a Deep South red state,” he said.

Langston agrees. She thinks Missourians would pass reform if they get the information “without the propaganda.”

Hagan said he’s good with spreading information. That is, the information that marijuana harms the heart, liver and lungs, he says. It also causes mental disorders.

Hagan also rejects the notion that his health argument is inconsistent because he’s not going after tobacco and alcohol.

“A glass of red wine is good for you,” Hagan said.

Also, lungs damaged by smoking cigarettes will begin to repair themselves as soon as the smoker quits, he said.

“But this isn’t about tobacco or alcohol,” Hagan said. “This is about marijuana and if we can keep it out of Missouri, that’s a good thing.”

He’s got the head of the Missouri Highway Patrol on his side.

Of states that have eased marijuana laws, Col. Ron Replogle said: “Many states have lost this battle and my counterparts in those states are dealing with many negative results in the public safety arena as a result.”

The issue is political, if oddly so.

Montana and Alaska, both considered conservative red states, have passed marijuana reforms.

Langston, who studied rural sociology at the University of Missouri, said that’s the rugged-individualist factor. People in those states don’t want the federal government telling them what they can and cannot do, she said.

Or, as Willie Nelson has said: “I smoke pot, and it’s none of the government’s business.”

A medical marijuana bill was introduced this year in the Missouri General Assembly. It would have allowed dispensaries where patients could legally obtain pot.

The sponsor, Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis area Democrat, declined comment.

But Langston does not think a legislative fix is likely anyway because of the political leanings of the body.

This fight, she said, needs to go to the people. A decision on a Kansas City initiative would come soon, she said. She didn’t know what allies she might have in Kansas City.

“But with marijuana, there’s always secret supporters,’ she said.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

LINK: http://www.kansascity.com/2012/05/22/3630309/effort-to-relax-marijuana-p...