Pot law compromise would exempt repeat offenders

Thursday, November 10, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A compromise proposal to change a voter-approved marijuana possession law would prevent certain repeat drug offenders and those convicted of other crimes from taking advantage of the new law's lenient sentencing guidelines.

An ordinance passed by Columbia voters in November 2004 requires police to treat those possessing up to 35 grams, or 1 1/4 ounces, of marijuana as low-level misdemeanor offenders. Pot owners now avoid arrest and only face municipal court fines of no more than $250 -- a punishment essentially equal to that associated with a speeding ticket.

A related measure that allows seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana within the city limits was approved on the same ballot by nearly 70 percent of Columbia voters.

Earlier this year, Columbia police officers started a petition drive to overturn the new drug possession law, which was approved by nearly 62 percent of city voters. In response, the law's chief supporter met quietly with the officers' representative, Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane, to work out a deal.

Both Crane and civil rights attorney Dan Viets, who represents the Columbia Alliance for Patients and Education, have previously declined to discuss the particulars of the proposed compromise until it is formally presented to the Columbia City Council.

But a Sept. 2 letter from Viets to Mayor Darwin Hindman, obtained by The Associated Press under the state's open records law, outlines four proposed exemptions to the new law:

* those found guilty of a felony in the preceding 10 years;

* anyone found guilty in state court of a class A misdemeanor, other than marijuana or drug paraphernalia possession, in the previous five years;

* anyone found guilty in state or municipal court of misdemeanor marijuana possession two or more times within the previous five years;

* anyone arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges who is also held on suspicion of a felony or misdemeanor offense chargeable only under state law.

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