House bill could mean no jail time for small marijuana possession

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JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri House Representatives will discuss a bill Thursday that would further lower the punishment of having small amounts of marijuana. 

Missouri House Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-St. Louis, is sponsoring the bill.

Currently, possessing fewer than 36 grams of marijuana is a class D felony. Felonies include longer jail sentences, fines and strict probation conditions.

Possessing 11 grams of marijuana is a class D misdemeanor. This means the maximum jail sentence is 30 days, and this will appear on a person's record. 

House Bill 1095 would make possessing fewer than 36 grams of marijuana a class D misdemeanor and possessing 10 grams or fewer an infraction. 

In 2014, Senate Bill 491 lowered the penalties of marijuana possession. Dogan said this legislation was designed to lower the punishments and number of arrests for marijuana possession in the state. However, he said, the opposite happened.

"It's only slight, but we have seen an increase in the number of arrest for marijuana possession in the last two years," Dogan said.

He said the bill will hopefully continue to push police attention away from having small amount amounts of marijuana, which he called "the least harmful" of many drugs.

"This bill is intended to further move the emphasis of law enforcement when we're talking about the 'War on Drugs' from possession to and marijuana to focusing on traffickers and to focusing on heroine and fentanyl and these other drugs that are really causing overdose deaths," Dogan said.

According to Dogan, marijuana possession is the second most common arrest next to DWIs in Missouri. 

"That's disproportionate and a waste of law enforcement resources when we have these opioid deaths, over 1,000, in the state of Missouri just last year," Dogan said. 

He explained that there are economic and racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession.

"African-Americans are about 193% more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though there are statistics showing whites and blacks use marijuana at the exact same rate. That's a troubling trend," Dogan said.

The bill is also designed to provide second chances for people that would allow them to still have opportunities. 

"I think that creates a better future for our next generation because if they make a mistake and they get into drugs, they won't have to have that on their record permanently and have that keep them from getting financial aid, job opportunities and brand them from being a criminal," Dogan said. 

He also said the state needs to address the barriers put up by the criminalization of small marijuana possession and change attitudes.

"We put up all kinds of barriers to people who have any kind of felony whether it's a drug possession, stealing, all these types of things. We tell these people 'we want you to make yourselves better, but we don't want you to work,'" Dogan said. 

In a phone interview with KOMU 8 News, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) attorney Dan Viets said this bill will be good for the state.

"I think overall its progress is a step in the right direction," Viets said.

However, Viets said he hopes the Missouri House and Senate will continue to lower the punishments.

"This bill won't fix everything. I would like to see infractions for more than 35 grams of marijuana possession," Viets said.

Dogan hopes HB 1095 will pass out of committee and start a "robust" discussion during the house hearing on Thursday.