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Ellinger looks to decriminalize marijuana, searching for bi-partisan support

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The push nationally to change laws regarding the use of marijuana is having its first waves in Missouri.

Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City
Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City

Last May, a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana got a formal hearing in the House, farther than any bill of that kind has progressed before, on the last day of session.

Now, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, says he’s planning on introducing the same bill this year, along with accompanying legislation that would regulate the commercial sale of the substance, though he admits that decriminalization of small amounts is a much more likely to pass.

“I feel fairly good that [decriminalization] will get farther than it did last year,” Ellinger said. “This is something that I think some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle might want to support because it’s going to reduce the size of our state government considerably.”

Ellinger said a coalition between Republicans looking to reduce government size in law enforcement, regulation and corrections and Democrats hoping to reduce largely minority-population arrests related to non-violent marijuana charges could give the bill some legs in the coming legislative session.

Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific
Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific

Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, chairs the Downsizing State Government committee, which Show-Me Cannabis recently testified in front of, arguing for the decriminalization of marijuana to reduce Missouri’s prison population and free up law enforcement to peruse more serious crimes. Curtman said if the bill was assigned to his committee — something he called a “distinct possibility” — that he assured Ellinger he would give it a hearing.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to say ‘let’s decriminalize marijuana in the state,’” Curtman said. “But at the same time I think there’s a lot of support behind the idea that our laws on the books for marijuana are just too heavy handed. So let’s balance out the criminal aspect of some of this, because the cost of keeping a person in jail to the taxpayer is immense.”

Curtman would not comment on whether or not the bill stood a chance being voted out of his committee or surviving a vote in the House, but said it was important to hear the debate and give both sides an opportunity to “present a case.”

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, Judiciary Committee chairman, said if it came to him, he would have to examine the bill before deciding on a hearing or not, but that he didn’t believe there was enough support in the General Assembly to move the legislation.

“I haven’t seen a strong movement toward decriminalization,” Cox said. “And I’m personally not an advocate of decriminalization.”

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia
Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia

Cox handled the Criminal Code omnibus last year, a bill that aims to make sweeping changes to the criminal code for streamlining purposes. At one point the changes included drastic reductions in punishments for marijuana-related offenses, but Cox removed the changes from the bill before it was voted out of the House, fearing that the inclusion of the changes could kill the bill, and believing the issue should be debated separately from the rest of the criminal code changes. The current language mirrors existing state law regarding marijuana.

“I can tell you of course I’ll look at the bill assigned to my committee,” Cox said. “And if I feel it’s appropriate, as chairman, I’ll give it a hearing. But that’s as far as I can comment in definite terms.”

Ellinger said his motivation moving forward largely has to do with young people and the impact a single marijuana offense can have on an otherwise law-abiding individual. As an attorney for more than 30 years, Ellinger said he’s lost count of the number of calls he’s gotten from recent college graduates looking to expunge a marijuana arrest from their record because it’s harmed their chances for employment. Unfortunately, he says, there is no avenue for expunging a drug-related arrest.

“Thousands of Missourians die every year because of addiction to tobacco or alcohol,” Ellinger said. “But not from marijuana. People say, ‘well it’s a gateway drug,’ but there’s no proof of that at all.”

Ellinger said he doesn’t know where Gov. Jay Nixon, a former attorney general and prosecutor, will stand on the issue, but that it is too soon for that as his main focus is a fair hearing early in the legislative session to explore whether the issue can move forward.

Ellinger said he was looking forward to discussing the matter soon with House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, to see if his bill could get a favorable hearing during session. Jones said that amidst the coming veto session and a busy summer he was not yet prepared to comment on possible 2014 legislation.