Missouri law enforcement, courts brace for possible passage of marijuana amendment

FILE - Marijuana plants for the adult recreational market are are seen in a greenhouse at Hepworth Farms in Milton, N.Y., Friday, July 15, 2022. Missouri voters are set to be the first in the nation to sign off on automatically forgiving past marijuana crimes if they approve a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational pot in November 2022. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE - Marijuana plants for the adult recreational market are are seen in a greenhouse at Hepworth Farms in Milton, N.Y., Friday, July 15, 2022. Missouri voters are set to be the first in the nation to sign off on automatically forgiving past marijuana crimes if they approve a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational pot in November 2022. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Members of law enforcement are beginning preparations in case voters legalize recreational marijuana in November.

Early this month, state Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft certified the Legal Missouri 2022 ballot initiative petition, putting the issue on the November ballot. If passed, Amendment 3 would make Missouri the 20th state to pass some sort of recreational marijuana law.

Missouri would be the first to expunge records of those charged with non-violent marijuana crimes.

Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said he spoke with petition organizers. He determined that, of the petitions that floated last year, Amendment 3 was the lesser of the evils.

"I personally don't like it. I don't think it's good for Missouri," he said.

What it means

Amendment 3 would legalize persons ages 21 and older to purchase, possess, consume, use, ingest, inhale, process, transport or distribute 3 ounces or less of dried, unprocessed marijuana, according to the petition. It also makes it legal for said people to plant, cultivate, harvest, dry and manufacture up to six flowering marijuana plants, six nonflowering plants (more than 14 inches tall), and six clone plants (shorter than 14 inches), provided the person is registered with the Department of Health and Senior Services.

However, it would be illegal to cultivate plants in places that are easily visible to the public. Violations of the rule would make a person subject to civil penalty of up to $250.

A person who smokes marijuana in a public space, other than in an area licensed for the activity, is subject to a fine not to exceed $100. Anyone under 21 who possesses or uses marijuana would be subject to a fine of up to $100 and forfeiture of the product.

Anyone 21 or older who possesses more than the allowed amount, but less than twice the allowed amount of marijuana, would face a civil penalty of no more than $250 and forfeiture of the marijuana for the first violation. A second violation could be punishable by a fine of up to $500 and forfeiture of the marijuana. A third (and any subsequent violation) would be punishable by a fine of no more than $1,000 and forfeiture of the marijuana.

Persons under age 21 would face a $250 fine and the option of attending up to eight hours of drug education or counseling in lieu of a fine.

Effects on jails, prisons

Passage of the amendment would mean people who are serving marijuana sentences for misdemeanors or low classifications of felonies could petition sentencing courts to vacate sentences and expunge records.

"Such expungement from all government records shall be granted for all of the person's applicable marijuana offenses, absent good cause for denial," the petition states.

Should it pass, its effect would be felt differently by individuals within the law enforcement community.

Wheeler said changes in the law would do little to affect the county jail. He said some offenses can lead to up to a year in the county jail. But, the jail is not holding marijuana offenders at this time. And marijuana arrests don't affect the jail population.

The public has the idea there is a large number of people serving prison terms for marijuana offenses in Missouri and nationwide, said John Payne, campaign manager for Legal Missouri 2022, the organization that organized the petition and gathered signatures for it.

"That's generally not the case," he said. "For people arrested for marijuana offenses, they are in the city jail or county jail for a week or a month. That's where those bigger numbers are."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has been a backer of the petition, according to Tom Bastian, its deputy director of communications. A 2020 ACLU report found Black Missourians were 2.6 times more likely than white Missourians to be arrested for drug possession, despite comparable marijuana use. In some Missouri counties, he pointed out, the disparity was as much as 10-1.

The organization, he said, remains committed to opposition of laws that criminalize adult use of marijuana, and to support of automatic expungements of marijuana-related offenses.

Karen Pojmann, Missouri Department of Corrections communications director, said Corrections is preparing for the ballot to pass, although passage would have minimal effects on state prisons.

Release and expungement would only apply to about 40 offenders whose most serious crime is marijuana-related, she said.

And the Missouri prisons population is about 23,600, so it would affect less than 0.17 percent of offenders.

"In most cases, people aren't sentenced to incarceration for a marijuana-related offense," she said. "Generally, they would be sentenced to probation or ... a suspended sentence and would only come into the facility if they have some sort of serious technical violation of their probation."

Cole County is different than counties Payne described, Wheeler said.

"I don't think (a new law would) affect me," Wheeler said. "The thing to remember is that we don't hold people in our facility if they have a small amount of marijuana. If we do arrest them, they are booked and released."

It may be safe to assume, said Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson, that passage of the amendment would lead to a decrease in court cases filed.

Thompson said he would hope that if the amendment passes, it would greatly reduce the number of marijuana cases. But, he understands that often, defendants' marijuana cases also involve other narcotics, he said.

"It's been on everyone's radar for some time," Thompson said. "Prosecutors and law enforcement have seen for some time the possibility of this coming down. We'll have to adjust, just like with anything else."

Expungement, the big task

Payne said one of his greatest concerns, should the initiative pass, is how Missouri handles expungement of records.

"The real big numbers are the people who have completed their sentences -- who were given citations or misdemeanors," Payne said. "There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who fall in that category."

A goal of the amendment is to clear the names of people whose records show marijuana infractions, he continued.

He said people who have minor marijuana offenses on their records find it harder to qualify for loans, become approved for apartments or be hired for jobs.

"That can perpetuate worse crimes down the road," Payne said.

Expungement is the most complex element of the initiative, he continued. It's not because the idea is complex, but because of the nature of the records -- and how they are sealed, he said.

The petition includes provisions to help pay for expungement procedures, Payne said. It requires circuit courts to order expungement of criminal histories of all misdemeanor offenses within six months of the amendment going into effect. Within 12 months of it going into effect, the amendment orders expungement of criminal history records for all persons convicted of felony marijuana offenses (or convicted of marijuana offenses that would no longer be considered crimes) who are no longer incarcerated or under Corrections' supervision.

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