Law enforcement, legislators oppose pot legalization

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bill moving through state House would legalize marijuana for recreational use

A bill has been filed in the Missouri House of Representatives that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, and local law enforcement and legislators have come out against the proposal.

Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, a former Boone County judge, introduced HB 1659 in January, saying he has seen the lives of too many young people ruined by convictions of small amounts of the drug. The bill would make it legal for anyone over the age of 21 to use, grow and sell marijuana, setting up a network of sellers, limiting licenses for growers and sellers based on population and imposing a 25 percent tax.

According to Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly, marijuana possession of less than 35 grams can result in a misdemeanor charge and a citation, while possession of 35 grams or more can result in a felony charge.

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said if the bill were to come up for a vote, he would "almost certainly vote 'no.'"

"It would be a shock if that bill gets out of the house committee of crime prevention and public safety," he said. "The chair of that committee [State Rep.] Dave Hinson, [R-St. Clair], would have to decide whether to bring it to a vote or not. I think public opinion is transforming on this issue, but I think the jury is still out."

Fitzpatrick said a recent poll he saw in the Missouri Scout, a private news service covering state politics, said about 70 percent of Missourians still oppose legalization.

"I don't know the opinion of people in my district because I did not add that question to my last survey," he said. "It would be interesting to hear what people have to say about it, but I would imagine they stand with the rest of the state and oppose it at this time."

Fitzpatrick said although legalization and regulation of marijuana could mean a tax revenue boost for the state, he is opposed because he does not feel it would be a game-changer.

"There are a lot of different ways to get revenue, and regulating marijuana is one of those ways," he said. "But, I think that should be secondary to considering the impact to the public that policy would create."

Epperly said he is against the measure because he believes marijuana is a mind-altering drug and the bill is only being introduced for the potential tax dollars it could create.

"My opinion is that we have been fighting marijuana forever and have proven it is not a good thing," he said. "It is a mind-altering drug and it looks to me like they are only trying to do it for the money for the state."

Dana Kammerlohr, Cassville police chief, said she is also against the proposed legalization.

"I have a negative feeling toward the legislation because I do not think marijuana is a recreational drug," she said. "It is potent enough to cause problems, whether emotionally or physically, and I have seen children being neglected because their parents use it. It's like being on a merry-go-round with lots of ups and downs and they never get off, and it is also known as a gateway drug."

Epperly said although he is against legalization, he does think marijuana use is not as big of a problem as meth use or alcohol abuse.

"Alcohol is more abused than marijuana and it is legal," he said. "I see a lot of people doing marijuana, and they tend to stay with it, and some of them even don't consider it a drug. We arrest a lot of people for driving while intoxicated and for domestic abuse that stems from drinking too much.

"[Marijuana users] are also more mellow than people on meth. It puts them in a soothing mood, and meth makes people violent with mood changes and hatred and a feeling that they don't care."

Kammerlohr said alcohol abuse is damaging, but that is no reason to legalize marijuana.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," she said. "Whether the product is legal or illegal, it's the abuse that affects our society and our family."

Epperly also has concerns that if marijuana were to be legalized, it could find its way into the hands of children with greater ease.

"It will probably be more problematic if it is legalized because young kids could start using at an early age, and it will alter their minds," he said. "Legalizing it does not change the problems we have with it."

Fitzpatrick said although he is opposed to full legalization of marijuana, he does think there may be merit to medical marijuana.

"I have talked to doctors that have made good arguments for medical use of marijuana, but beyond that, I do not see a real public benefit in going all the way to legalization."

Jay Nixon, governor of Missouri, said he could consider a medical marijuana bill, but said anything beyond is "a bridge too far."

State Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, did not return multiple messages for comment on this report.

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