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Panel discusses marijuana proposals

Panel discusses marijuana proposals

March 28th, 2014 in News

Dan Viets, a Columbia-based criminal defense lawyer and chairman of the Show-Me Cannabis Regulation Board of Directors, speaks about marijuana reform Thursday evening during a public forum held at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City.

Photo by Kile Brewer

In four decades since Gallup has been polling Americans on their views on marijuana, the majority has shifted from 84 percent opposed in 1969 to 58 percent in favor of legalizing its use in 2013.

Reflecting that national change, Missouri has several bills currently under consideration in the legislature. And organizations like Show-Me Cannabis, the Missouri Association for Social Welfare and the National Organization for Women have brought the issue to the forefront of community conversation.

Thursday evening, nearly three dozen people attended an Open Forum to Discuss Marijuana Law Reform in Missouri, cohosted by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City's Social Action Committee.

"I believe no matter the topic, it's really important to have community discussion," said the first panelist, Nicole Saltzman, who is the field education coordinator and assistant professor for social work at Lincoln University.

Saltzman pointed out mandatory reporting obligations by therapists and the stigma of criminal behavior often prevents an open dialogue with those seeking mental health care.

"There is a big difference between something being unhealthy and being criminal," Saltzman said.

Panelist Dan Viets, a criminal defense lawyer, referred to the failed "noble experiment" of alcohol prohibition, 1919-1933, as the same direction for the prohibition of marijuana.

Cannabis consumption was not illegal until 1937. Viets suggested racism had an influence in that decision.

And still today, proponents of marijuana law reform suggest racism is still perpetuated.

An American Civil Liberties Union report, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," shows in Missouri, blacks are 2.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, though use is probably about equal.

Cole County even has a "shocking disparity" between races arrested on marijuana charges, Viets said.

"We've got a problem," he said.

Currently in Missouri, possession of more than 1.25 ounces of marijuana is a felony. And at least one inmate is incarcerated for life solely for marijuana-related crimes, which were non-violent and victimless, Viets said.

The social welfare association has a particular interest in this issue because of racial discrimination and the barriers to health and mental health care, said Don Love, leader of its human rights task force.

The past 30 years' "war on drugs" has not helped the people who need it, has wasted resources and has put some people in jail who shouldn't be there, Love said.

The association has been researching and reviewing policy change for some time and favors a pace that does not create more problems than it solves, he said.

Rep. Rory Ellinger (D-86) from St. Louis County has proposed HB1324 creating the "Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act."

Rep. Chris Kelly (D-45) from Columbia has sponsored HB1659, which would decriminalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

"You don't have to be a marijuana user to understand the irrationality of marijuana prohibition," Viets said.