The recent arrests of three Missouri football players accused of smoking marijuana on campus has some students questioning how the university handles what is a fairly routine infraction on a 34,000-student campus.
Top recruit Dorial Green-Beckham, a wide receiver, and two freshman teammates face misdemeanor charges of possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana and a mid-November court date. They were suspended for one game – a 19-15 Missouri home loss to Vanderbilt – but are now back with the 4-4 Tigers, who beat Kentucky 33-10 on Saturday for the school's first Southeastern Conference win.
A 2004 city law approved by Columbia voters treats such cases as low-level, municipal court offenses similar to traffic citations. Violators are typically given a summons to appear in court but not arrested.
The university police force follows more stringent state procedures for marijuana arrests – meaning Green-Beckham, linebacker Torey Boozer and wide receiver Levi Copelin were handcuffed and driven to the university police department after a patrol officer smelled pot in a white Lincoln Navigator sitting in a parking lot near Memorial Stadium shortly before midnight on Oct. 3. The students were released after providing fingerprints and mug shots.
Soon after the player arrests and criticism from student drug reform activists, campus Police Chief Jack Watring said he would review the procedures. Watring also said that he was unaware city officers didn't arrest pot possession offenders, despite the eight-year lapse since the Columbia law changed.
After consulting with municipal Judge Robert Aulgur, Watring said there are no plans to change its arrest procedures.
“We are not changing anything we do,” Watring said. “There is some criticism that we treated the athletes differently. That is absolutely not the case. We treated the athletes exactly the same way we treated all the others.”
Senior nursing student Alexis Lyle, president of the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called the campus arrest policy a slap in the face to the Columbia voters who approved the 2004 ballot initiative.
“A lot of people who vote in Columbia, Missouri, are students,” she said.” It's not like there's a separate election for us.”
Lyle said the university's stance fits into a pattern of government officials in Missouri disregarding citizens' more lenient stances on marijuana, In the southwest Missouri city of Springfield, elected leaders in late September repealed a citizen-driven ordinance that lowered punishments for small amounts of marijuana – an ordinance modeled after Columbia's statutes.
The council initially adopted the marijuana petition but made it clear they planned to overturn the change.
“It saddens me that judges and police chiefs and politicians would try to deny us these rights,” she said.
Watring also defended his earlier public comments about the city's pot arrest procedures.
“We don't have everyday contact with the Columbia Police Department,” he said. “They have their own policies and procedures.”
“When I said we weren't aware of what they're doing, there's no reason for us to be aware of what they're doing,” he added. “They do their thing, we do our thing.”
City residents found to have violated the more lax marijuana possession laws must still be booked after their trial, the chief said, calling the decision to immediately process pot suspects one that is partially about convenience.
“They do it after they go to court. We do it before we go to court,” he said, estimating that the campus police department makes two to three such arrests weekly when school is in session.
Once in city court, violators typically pay a fine of no more than $250 and receive community service in lieu of jail time. The conviction is dropped if the offender stays out of legal trouble for another year, though repeat offenders and those with felony convictions are exempt.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier