Slowly but surely, marijuana is being pushed out of the crosshairs of the war on drugs.
Pot is legal for medical uses in 23 states. In Colorado and Washington, it’s legal for purely recreational use.
Voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., will decide Nov. 4 whether to legalize recreational sales.
Missouri lawmakers OK’d a nonintoxicating cannabis derivative for narrow therapeutic use this year, but they show little appetite for broadening legalization for even medical purposes.
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Still, a sweeping overhaul of the state’s criminal code also passed this year eliminating jail time for first-time offenders caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana starting in 2017.
“For years, this movement was playing defense, just trying to keep the laws from getting worse,” said John Payne, executive director of pro-legalization group Show-Me Cannabis. “This was the first legislative session where we actually passed laws that we favored.”
Public support for legalizing pot — as a medical cure and simply as a high — has grown dramatically in recent years. The trend is less profound in Republican states such as Missouri and Kansas, but even that resistance shows signs of fading.
Legalization advocates believe they can bring the national momentum into conservative states despite skeptical lawmakers, turning to ballot measures or appeals to city councils while pounding the argument that cannabis should be taxed and regulated just like booze.
In Missouri, they have their eyes on the November 2016 ballot.
“We plan to place this question before voters in 2016,” said Dan Viets, an attorney and chairman of Show-Me Cannabis. “It’s illegal to drive stoned, and that won’t change. We’re not going to let kids buy marijuana or allow consumption in public places. We believe it should be regulated the same as alcohol,” including the same age minimum to make purchases.
Gallup has been surveying the public on marijuana since 1969. Last year, it found for the first time a clear majority of Americans — 58 percent — believed the drug should be legal, a 10 percentage point jump in just one year.
“It has been a long path toward majority acceptance of marijuana over the past 44 years,” the polling agency concluded, “but Americans’ support for legalization accelerated as the new millennium began.”
Opponents of legalization say marijuana has health effects that aren’t well understood and that it provides a gateway to other drugs. Brian Bowles, executive director of the Missouri Association of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons, recently argued that there is a “scarcity of evidence” of the effectiveness of medical marijuana.
“There are just too many questions left unanswered to support legalization at this time,” he said.
Cities around the country are also advancing the issue by decriminalizing the personal use or possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Philadelphia became the largest city in the U.S. to take that step earlier this month, making possession of less than 30 grams of the drug punishable by a $25 fine and no jail time. The City Council of Santa Fe, N.M., passed a similar law in August.
In 2004, Columbia voters backed a pair of measures seeking to liberalize local pot laws, including one saying people found in possession of fewer than 35 grams of marijuana should not be arrested, but rather ticketed. They would then head to city, not state, court and face probation, counseling or a $250 fine.
Last week, the Columbia City Council fell one vote shy of going even further. The action would have reduced the penalty for cultivating as many as two marijuana plants to $250 and allowed seriously ill people to grow the plants without facing prosecution.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted last year to establish a citywide marijuana statute that effectively reduces penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a small fine.
Kansas City hasn’t gone quite as far, but local officials say they went a long way toward relaxing the city’s marijuana possession laws when they moved many of those offenses from state court to Municipal Court in the mid-1990s. That move alone cut potential penalties at least in half.
Nearly all first-offense marijuana offenses now go through city court rather than state court, especially if referred by Kansas City police, said Kansas City Prosecutor Keith Ludwig.
In state court, possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In city court, the maximum penalty is six months and a $500 fine, although Ludwig said people entering a guilty plea in city court to a marijuana offense generally receive probation and drug counseling, especially for a first offense.
Kansas is considered to have some of the harshest marijuana penalties in the nation.
Possession of any amount of marijuana — even a single gram — can land people in prison for up to a year, as well as a $1,000 fine. If they’re caught with marijuana again, they face a felony charge and up to 31/2 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
In Wichita, a group has launched a petition drive to place a measure on the April ballot reducing marijuana penalties in the city. Under the petition, anyone 21 and older who possesses 32 grams of marijuana or less would be fined $50 for a first infraction.
The wild card in the debate is the federal government.
Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department wouldn’t criminally prosecute recreational marijuana users and state-approved growers and venders in Colorado and Washington. In February, the Treasury Department issued rules to make it easier for banks to do business with marijuana dispensers.
Despite all this, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance under federal law. Possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail for first-time offenders. Growing even a small amount of marijuana could mean a five-year sentence, even more if done near a school, playground or public housing.
Show-Me Cannabis began the process of a legalization ballot measure in 2012 before abandoning the effort. The political headwinds would be stronger in 2016, when a large and typically more liberal turnout is expected for a presidential election.
A fiscal analysis prepared by the Missouri Auditor’s Office of the 2012 ballot measure concluded that if approved by voters, legalized marijuana could boost state revenue by at least $142 million annually.
State Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said he plans to file a medical marijuana bill once again next legislative session. He’s hopeful it can gain traction in a skeptical legislature, although he says a vote of the people will likely be the only way for progress to happen.
“Missouri is an incremental state that likes to move slowly on social reform,” said Holsman. “But I’m encouraged that we’re moving at all.”
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.