Columbia lightens up on marijuana use

Some in Lawrence support drug law changes

Simply put, Columbia, Mo., is a pretty good place these days to smoke a joint.

For that, Columbia residents have Amanda Broz to thank.

Broz's story started with a busted tail light. But that soon turned into a more serious problem for the University of Missouri student.

When the police officer who had pulled her over smelled the scent of marijuana, it was only a matter of time before he found the small amount of pot in her vehicle. After that came handcuffs and a trip to county jail.

A realization, though, also came Broz's way. She didn't deserve this, she thought.

"It was so dehumanizing," Broz said. "They take away all of your possessions. Make you take your shoes off, take your jewelry off. They do the extra, extra thorough body search. I thought this was ridiculous. I'm a good person and I don't feel like I've committed a crime, and I'm not hurting anyone."

That was in the late 1990s in a county just outside the Columbia area. When Broz returned to Columbia, home of the University of Missouri, she decided to help start a public referendum process to decriminalize marijuana possession.

With about 60 percent support, voters last November approved a measure that prohibits Columbia police officers from arresting anyone for simple marijuana possession. That means anyone found with less than an ounce and a quarter of marijuana can only be given a summons to appear in the city's municipal court. Police officers no longer have the discretion to refer the case to the district attorney for prosecution by the state. Once in municipal court, the maximum fine that can be levied is $250, regardless of whether the defendant is a first-time offender or has been arrested multiple times.

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An unidentified person in Columbia, Mo., smokes marijuana. Voters last November approved a measure that prohibits Columbia police officers from arresting anyone for simple marijuana possession.

Can such a change be on the horizon for Lawrence?

Currently, first-time offenders in Lawrence can be jailed. They also routinely face fines and court costs that total more than $500 and are ordered to attend drug and alcohol counseling. Second-time offenders run the risk of receiving a felony record.

Mayor Boog Highberger said he's open to the type of changes Columbia has made.

"I think putting people in jail for smoking marijuana is a misuse of our resources," Highberger said.

Smoldering in Lawrence?

But whether Lawrence or state marijuana advocates actively push for similar changes in local law is an open question. The issue came up quietly during the last City Commission election when someone regularly asked candidates about the issue during online chats sponsored by the Journal-World. The issue re-emerged during an online chat with the mayor in April.

Some of the city's more vocal marijuana advocates, though, said they hadn't organized any effort to change the law in Lawrence. Thomas Trower - who, along with longtime advocate Mark Creamer, stages "Honk for Hemp" rallies most Sundays at 11th and Massachusetts streets - said Kansas was just too conservative for meaningful marijuana laws to gain any traction.

"Kansas will be right before Texas and Louisiana in loosening drug laws," Trower said. "We're just so conservative. We'll be toward the end of the line."

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But advocates would find an open ear in Highberger. Highberger said a change of marijuana laws was not currently on his agenda, but he was sympathetic to the idea.

"I think marijuana could be treated more like alcohol or tobacco instead of like really dangerous drugs like crack or heroin," Highberger said. "I think it is something worth considering."

Whether the idea would receive support from other key groups in the city is uncertain. Sgt. Dan Ward, a spokesman with the Lawrence Police Department, said the department wasn't yet taking a position on the issue.

"We don't make the laws and the ordinances," Ward said. "We just would enforce what we were given."

Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said he would want to read a specific proposal before ruling anything out, but he said he generally thought the current practices in Lawrence - which generally allow first-time offenders to keep their convictions off their records through a diversion agreement - were working well. Branson said he liked that the Lawrence system required people who needed help to get counseling, and also provided a significant monetary incentive for people to not break the law.

Wrong message

Lawrence leaders should be careful in considering a Columbia model, said Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm. Columbia police officers have found the law changes troubling because they feel they don't have adequate tools to deal with multiple offenders.

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Columbia, Mo., police chief Randy Boehm has some concerns about his city's new marijuana ordinance, and would like it repealed by voters. He wants his officers to have the ability to arrest people and send them to state court, especially if it's their second or third offense.

"The whole purpose of the system is to correct people's behavior," Boehm said. "We try municipal court the first time and if that works, then great. But if that doesn't, then we want to be able to try something else, and now we can't."

Not only are many marijuana users not going to jail, but many are also not being fined or subjected to other forms of punishment. That's because there is language in the ordinance that promotes leniency on the part of prosecutors where appropriate. That means most first-time offenders are never prosecuted unless they're involved in some other sort of crime within the year, said Rose Wibbenmeyer, city prosecutor.

During the first six months following the ordinance, Wibbenmeyer said her office received about 350 marijuana cases, but she reviewed fewer than 10 of them for possible charges because the persons couldn't stay out of trouble.

Broz sees all of that as a positive. The ordinance frees up time for the police and the courts to deal with serious problems, she said.

"I think a lot of people are saying marijuana isn't something the police should be focusing on," Broz said. "We have a lot of other problems in our community that we should be focusing our resources on."

Boehm isn't so sure that the community is pleased with the law. Members of the Columbia Police Officers Assn. are circulating a petition in an attempt to have the issue put back on the ballot and repealed. He said people needed to understand the risk of marijuana use leading to other, more serious offenses.

"I'm not suggesting that everyone who uses marijuana is going to go on to use harsher drugs," Boehm said. "But I have been in law enforcement for a little over 28 years, and I have not ever heard of or talked to a drug user using harsh drugs who hasn't said they started with marijuana."

Supporters of Columbia's new ordinance are optimistic voters will disagree if asked to decide the issue again.

"That argument is bull****," said Dan Viets, a Columbia defense attorney who was a key organizer of the referendum issue. "Most people realize that using marijuana never caused people to use heroin."

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