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Petitions, legislation seek to ease state pot laws

Supporters of marijuana legalization plan to push a statewide ballot initiative this spring, while Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, continues to nudge his colleagues toward decriminalizing the drug and legalizing its medicinal use.

Thirteen initiative petitions to legalize marijuana were approved for circulation by the secretary of state Wednesday, but supporters say they will choose one and gather signatures to get on the 2014 ballot if polling suggests the idea has broad support.

Columbia attorney Dan Viets, who filed the petitions on behalf of Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, said the organization plans to poll likely 2014 voters over the next month to see which version of the petition is most popular. If one of them approaches 60 percent support across the state, they would begin the process of gathering signatures, otherwise they will wait until 2016.

The major differences between the petitions concern the number of plants residents would be able to grow themselves, and whether people who had been convicted of previous marijuana crimes could have their records expunged or be released from prison.

“If polling is strong enough, we believe we can raise the money to gather the signatures,” Viets said.

To get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, proponents will need to collect signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in six of the state’s eight congressional districts no later than 5 p.m. May 4.

The goal of the proposal is to “tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol,” said Viets, who predicts legalization would “save the state many millions of dollars and generate many millions of dollars (in revenues).”

Ellinger was skeptical that full legalization could gain support among public officials or pass in a conservative state like Missouri, but he thinks voters, especially younger ones, are more in favor of the idea.

“I think that the voters are way ahead of the politicians on this issue, and in the secrecy of the ballot box, they very well might pass complete legalization,” he said.

The effort is similar to recent measures that passed statewide in Washington and Colorado. On Jan. 1, Colorado became the first state in the nation with a legal marijuana industry.

Colorado allows individuals to grow their own marijuana plants, but Washington’s law does not. Viets said his organization would like to include the provision.

“We are committed to permitting some limited personal cultivation,” he said.

The ballot measure would also allow people convicted of marijuana crimes in the past to get their records expunged and be released from prison, if serving time for those crimes.

“This seems like an obvious thing,” Viets said. “If people shouldn’t be arrested in the future, why should we continue punishing people for crimes in the past?

Show-Me Cannabis has one full-time staffer and a board of seven members and raised money from individuals across the state but had just more than $1,500 cash on hand at the end of 2013, according to campaign records.

It has also received significant funding from The American Victory Coalition, a 501 (c) (4) based in Portland, Ore., which according to its website is “a coalition of civil libertarians seeking to improve Americans quality of life by promoting freedom and true equality for all citizens.”

At the Capitol

While Viets and his organization attempt to gather enough signatures to get legalization on the ballot, Rep. Ellinger will once again continue an effort to get the General Assembly to consider much more limited decriminalization of the drug.

Ellinger introduced a decriminalization bill last session and it got as far as a public hearing in May but never made it out of committee. This session, Ellinger filed the same measure and has also filed a bill, based on legislation from Illinois that would legalize medical marijuana in Missouri.

He said marijuana use should not bar people from going to school or getting a job.

“There are many areas that are closed to people that have even a minor marijuana conviction on their record,” Ellinger said. “Is it right they get this punishment for life? No it’s very, very unfair.”

Ellinger said the drug is no more dangerous and less addictive than alcohol and tobacco, which are both regulated, taxed and used widely.

Like alcohol and tobacco, he said, marijuana likely presents health and safety risks, but that using those products “are adult decisions that should be made by adults.”

The medical marijuana bill would tightly regulate who could qualify for prescriptions and where the drug would be acquired.

“My bill is extremely strict… in that you must have a doctor’s prescription, you cannot smoke it, you take it like a pill,” Ellinger said. “This is strictly for medical purposes, just like you are taking a drug for any other kind of disease.”

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