Marijuana Legalization Proposal Gets Grilled by St. Louis Aldermen

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click to enlarge Legalization supporters carry a giant inflatable joint near the site of the 2016 presidential debate in St. Louis. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Legalization supporters carry a giant inflatable joint near the site of the 2016 presidential debate in St. Louis.

An ambitious bill in St. Louis would essentially legalize weed within city limits by barring enforcement of state laws prohibiting marijuana possession — but at a legislative hearing last week, the bill's sponsor, 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Green, found herself fielding pointed questions about her bill's unintended consequences.

Simply put, the bill in question, BB 180, would prohibit the city and its police department from committing resources to citing people for small-scale weed possession — stipulated as two ounces or ten plants.

The bill includes exceptions, ostensibly to permit officers to crack down on larger quantities or underage sales, among other things. During the hearing, however, several aldermen pointed to potential devils lurking in the details.

"Decriminalizing marijuana is fine, but I think people should still be held accountable if they’re taking any substance while they’re employed," said 14th Ward Alderwoman Carol Howard, who wasn't alone in finding the bill's requirements for employers to be problematic.

According to the bill, employers would be prohibited from refusing to hire someone based on their marijuana use — as long as that use fell within the two-ounce, ten-plant limit. But to Howard, extending the bill's provisions into the realm of employment law "goes beyond the reach" of the goals of legalization. For some jobs, she noted, such as a school-bus driver, an employer would have an understandable interest in hiring drug-free employees.

Although Green responded by saying that the bill intends to preserve an employer's ability to fire a blitzed-out staffer or someone who violates the employee manual, Howard and others expressed concern that, regardless of her intent, that exception wasn't actually built into the bill's language.

At one point, Green suggested she would fix the problem by cleaning up the language. But after listening to Howard's point, she conceded that trying to legislate employment decisions could present more headaches than it's worth.

"If it’s going to make it easier for this bill to pass if we just strike that section, I’m OK doing that," said Green, responding to Howard. "It does make this bill more complicated than it needs to be." 

Earlier in the hearing, Alderman Scott Ogilvie similarly cautioned that the bill's employment provision "is clearly contradicted by state law."

Ogilvie also highlighted problems in the bill's enforcement provision, which states: "Any employee of the City of St. Louis who expends the City’s resources to enforce laws in violation of this Ordinance will lack the lawful authority to do so." According to the bill, city employees in violation of the ordinance "may be subject to eviction from City real estate."

That's all well and good on paper, but Ogilvie had a reasonable question about how the bill would treat the city's top prosecutor, who is elected.

"So, it’s your opinion that if Kim Gardner’s office prosecutes a felony marijuana case for possession, or for growing in somebody’s house, we can evict Kim Gardner from her office across the street?" he asked Green. "How would you evict a police officer from the police station who writes up a change and gives it to a prosecutor?"

Green faltered. "That I don't know," she said.

As an alternative, Ogilvie suggested that the police department and Circuit Attorney's Office be allowed to create policies for how they'll handle marijuana possession cases, without the threat of eviction from city property. (That tactic would echo the Board of Aldermen's actions in 2013, when its members voted to make possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana a municipal violation; the ordinance created a new policy for St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers to follow, providing guidance on when to write citations and when to send misdemeanor or felony cases to the circuit attorney.)

The legislative hearing lasted more than two hours, and Green weathered the most intense criticism from Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed, who has his own marijuana bill pending in the same committee. Reed's bill, though, would merely reduce the current municipal fine for weed possession from $50 to $25.

Before throwing his own bill into the ring last month, Reed had blasted Green's proposal in a lengthy takedown shared to NextDoor and Facebook — a takedown that was then hacked to pieces by legalization activists who pointed to numerous errors in Reed's comparisons between Green's bill and Colorado's statewide pot laws.

Taking his argument from NextDoor to real life, Reed laid into Green's bill for "turning a blind eye" to the city's violent drug trade and hamstringing police officers from investigating drug crimes.

Green responded, "The illegal drug trade is still illegal under this ordnance."

"But we can't police it," Reed fired back, adding that because Green's bill would allow marijuana use indoors — with the property owner's approval, that is — he questioned how officers could ever investigate suspected drug houses. When Green attempted to clarify that her bill was only intended to legalize personal use, Reed cut her off.

"This isn’t about what your intent is,"  he said. "Once this becomes law, if it's  not in here and in writing, it's not going to matter about how you see it in a nuanced fashion."

The exchange, already testy, soon took a sharply toxic turn, as Reed began chiding Green for the way she'd invoked former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Michael Wolff, who had co-authored a legal analysis of her bill. Reed warned Green to not misrepresent Wolff's contributions or support, and Green responded by clarifying that Wolff had some concerns about the bill's employment section.

"I'm glad you finally came clean on that," Reed patronized, "but what I'm going to invite you to do is go back watch the video."

This time it was Green who cut Reed off.

"Don't call me a liar again," Green shot back, seemingly in reference to Reed's two-year-old claim that she had lied about being offered bribes to support a financing deal to fund a new Rams stadium.

Not done, Green added, "It's because I'm a woman, right?" That barb was an apparent reference to Reed's giggling along during a racist shock-jock's sexist tirade leveled at Green last year.

"Stop with that," Reed said back. "Don't throw that woman thing at me. I’m not throwing the African American man thing against you. Are you having a problem with me because I’m an African American man? Stop that." 

After another round of verbal jousting, calm was restored to the hearing, which was mercifully adjourned minutes later. Although no public comment was allowed at yesterday's hearing, the committee chair, Alderman Joseph Vaccaro, announced that there would be "at least one, if not two" public hearings scheduled before any bills are sent to the full board for a vote.

As for Reed's bill, it was initially scheduled for to be presented, like Green's, at yesterday's committee hearing. Reed's chief of staff, Tom Shepard, explained to RFT that they'd decided to hold the bill back till a later date. "We knew it would be a long hearing," he said. He wasn't wrong.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

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