A college-town ordinance that has spared marijuana users from jail is being used as model for a Missouri proposal that would let small-time pot smokers perform community service instead of being sent to the slammer.
Legislation outlined Thursday by Democratic Reps. Chris Kelly and Rory Ellinger still would charge people with a crime for possessing marijuana. But some offenders could have their convictions removed from their record by fulfilling the terms of their softened sentences.
A similar model has been in place for eight years in Columbia, which is the home of the University of Missouri.
Under current Missouri law, people convicted of possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine
The legislation would limit fines for such violations to $250, prohibit incarceration and state that violators should not have their driving license suspended. It also would bar police from arresting people caught with small amounts of marijuana, instead directing law officers to issue a summons to appear in court.
Ellinger, a St. Louis criminal defense attorney, said the legislation would help people with marijuana convictions in their youth get jobs later by not having to disclose the conviction.
"You are free to start over again," he said.
Columbia attorney Dan Viets, who is chairman of Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, said the Columbia program has been working well. Viets was joined at the news conference by former Columbia prosecutor Marcia Bower, who also praised the city's reduced marijuana penalties.
When asked whether removing prison sentences would eliminate a crime deterrent, Kelly said deterrence already has failed.
"We spend so much money and we make no difference as to the use, and what we do is we ruin hundreds of thousands of people's lives," said Kelly, D-Columbia.
People would not qualify for the lighter sentences under the House bill if they have been found guilty of a felony in the past 10 years, or if they have received two or more convictions for marijuana possession in the past five years.
In a House chamber controlled by a two-thirds Republican majority, Democratic bills often don't fare well. At a Thursday news conference, House Speaker Tim Jones said marijuana legislation hasn't been an issue on which he's focused but that he would reserve judgment on the proposal.