Top court ruling not expected to change Columbia prosecution

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Advocates and opponents of laws that loosened restrictions on marijuana use in Columbia were in rare agreement Tuesday, saying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing federal prosecution of medical marijuana users will have little or no impact in the city.

Columbia is the only Missouri city with ordinances that loosened state restrictions on marijuana use. Last November, voters approved two ordinances: One requiring that people with slightly over one ounce of marijuana be prosecuted in city court, with a maximum fine of $250; and the other allowing the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that people who smoke marijuana for medical reasons can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws.

But no one expects federal drug enforcement agents to begin arresting seriously ill people who use marijuana.

"This ruling simply maintains the status quo," said Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane. "It really is not that earthshaking."

Columbia lawyer Dan Viets, a leading proponent of the city's marijuana policies, echoed Crane.

"People tend to assume this is much more sweeping than it is," Viets said. "It won't have any effect at all."

Columbia police chief Randy Boehm said he had asked city prosecutor Rose Wibbenmeyer if the ruling would change enforcement of the ordinances. Boehm noted that the city has never prosecuted anyone for medical marijuana use and has nearly always sent first-time marijuana offenders to municipal court.

Crane agreed, saying he did not know of one case in Missouri where someone was arrested for medical marijuana use.

"We weren't arresting chronically ill people in droves, before or after the ordinances passed," he said.

Wibbenmeyer did not return phone calls from The Associated Press Tuesday.

Crane said state laws prohibiting marijuana use, which his office enforces, were not affected by the Supreme Court ruling.

He said the Columbia ordinances do not restrict any law enforcement agency other than the city police, meaning federal, state or county officers could conceivably arrest people, although Crane does not expect that to happen in cases involving users of small amounts of marijuana or medical marijuana users.

Although he discounted the impact of the Supreme Court ruling, Viets said it continues a pattern by the federal government of trying to intimidate doctors and patients who want to use marijuana to treat such illnesses as AIDS, cancer or multiple sclerosis.

He said users of medicinal marijuana took the case to the Supreme Court to emphasize that the government was prosecuting selected cases. Another important issue was states' rights to decide how they will handle marijuana cases, he said, adding it was "disgusting" that the court sided with the federal government in its ruling.

Viets contended that numerous surveys have found up to 70 percent public support for medicinal use of marijuana. He said politicians have been "brainwashed" into believing that they would take political hits if they support decriminalizing marijuana laws.

"We have won the hearts and minds of the public," Viets said. "Eventually, the politicians will come along."

But not law enforcement officers, apparently. Both Crane and Boehm said they are still opposed to the Columbia ordinances. Boehm said the marijuana ordinance put Columbia law in conflict with state law, leaving his officers in a quandary.

And Crane said most doctors simply don't suggest marijuana use to their patients.

"A reputable doctor does not tell a patient with a terminal disease to go find a guy on a street corner and buy some dope and you'll feel better," Crane said.

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