The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is considering a bill that would all but legalize the use and possession of two ounces or less of marijuana — about a sandwich-bag’s worth. It would do so by forbidding police officers from enforcing Missouri’s marijuana laws, or even the city’s own 2013 ordinance that reduced the penalty for possessing 1.2 ounces or less to the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
Under Missouri law, possession of two ounces of marijuana is a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine. What could get you seven years in St. Louis County would be a no-call in St. Louis city.
In recent years, the city has tried to enact stricter gun laws than the state’s and a higher minimum wage. The Legislature invoked the doctrine of pre-emption, holding that state law supersedes. So Alderman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, the sponsor of Board Bill 180, got some outside legal help in trying to bulletproof her marijuana bill.
Michael A. Wolff, dean emeritus of the St. Louis University law school and former judge of the Missouri Supreme Court, and David Roland, of the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri in Mexico, weighed in. They argued that Green’s bill doesn’t change state law, but only sets police priorities — which a local government is entitled to do.
Board Bill 180 claims that “Regulating marijuana would free up law enforcement to focus on real crime.”
Even enforcing the 2013 marijuana-equals-traffic-ticket ordinance takes away police resources, Green argues. Since 2014, the police department has issued more than 840 weed tickets.
If Board Bill 180 were to pass, any cop who tried to enforce state marijuana laws “may be subject to eviction from city real estate” and restricted from use of city resources, i.e., a police car.
The bill was the subject of a two-hour hearing on Dec. 7 when some aldermen objected to that provision, along with one that bans private employers from firing people for violating the two-ounce rule. Some of Green’s colleagues thought that was a bit extreme. They were right.
Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, who has his own marijuana bill, halving the $50 ordinance fine, bickered with Green, who bickered right back. On Tuesday, Green made it official: She will challenge Reed for his job in the March 2019 city primary.
Green is right: Police officers have better things to do than cracking down on minor amounts of dope. Most of them don’t. But setting law enforcement priorities is way beyond the aldermen’s pay grade. Wolff and Roland’s legal reasoning will probably make state lawmakers apoplectic. In itself, that’s not a bad thing, but this bill needs a lot more careful thought and input before we get to that point.