A Missouri House committee Monday considered legislation for the first time this year that would legalize marijuana use for most adults, but the Democratic proposal faces an uncertain fate in the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature.
Under the measure, Missouri would join Washington and Colorado as the only states to legalize recreational marijuana use. Missouri’s version would guarantee the right of people older than 21 to produce, sell, distribute and use pot.
The bill’s sponsor said he was against legalizing marijuana use until he changed his mind after serving on the bench.
“I saw too many young people whose lives were ruined by using small amounts of marijuana,” said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and a former Boone County judge.
Some Republican committee members were skeptical about the bill during Monday’s hearing. Rep. Kenneth Wilson, a retired police officer, said he was concerned about the effect of secondhand smoke if marijuana was used in homes around children.
“We often forget about the ills that this is going to cost society,” said Wilson, R-Smithville.
Although marijuana possession remains a federal crime, the federal government has announced that it will not challenge the laws in Washington and Colorado.
Missouri’s legislation would allow the state to adopt various regulations on marijuana distribution and usage, as well as levy an excise tax up to 25 percent of the drug’s original cost. The state could choose to restrict usage within 1,000 feet of a public school or university. It could also limit advertisements for the drug and the amount people are allowed to buy at a given time.
A preliminary estimate shows that the excise tax will generate more than $200 million in revenue per year once fully implemented in 2016. The money would be divided between pensions for law enforcement officers, education, mental health, substance abuse programs and local governments.
Kelly added that he did not condone marijuana use or advocate for it. But he said the inefficient management of the drug means legalization could save money and stop ineffective government regulation.
But those arguments weren’t enough to sway reluctant Republicans on the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
“What I fear is that if we do decriminalize this we are going to make it attractive,” said Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, a former sheriff’s deputy. “I do not want to bring anything else that is going to create a negative impact on our young children.”
While skeptical of overall legalization, committee members were more open to discussion approval of medical marijuana use, which would also be allowed under the bill.
Some parts of Missouri aren’t waiting for lawmakers to change the state’s drug policy.
Columbia and St. Louis have both adopted so-called decriminalization ordinances, reducing a first-time offense for possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana to a low-level misdemeanor similar to a traffic ticket. Instead of being arrested, offenders in those cities get a summons to appear in court and face a fine rather than jail.
Supporters said they would also pursue the initiative petition process during the 2016 election cycle.
The committee on Monday offered no timetable for further action.