Voters in the University of Missouri college town of Columbia rejected a measure that would have softened penalties for marijuana possession Tuesday. Proposition 1, which would have mandated that persons charged with possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana be tried in municipal instead of state court, failed by a margin of 58% to 42% in a municipal election that saw almost three times the usual voter turnout. The measure would also have legalized medical marijuana use for the seriously ill.
Trying petty possession cases in municipal rather than state court would allow students to avoid losing federal financial aid under the anti-drug provision of the Higher Education Act, a point organizers hoped would help mobilize student voters. The initiative would also have eliminated jail time as a punishment for misdemeanor possession. While final figures are unavailable, initiative organizers told DRCNet student turnout was high.
Organized by University of Missouri students and local activists, the measure also gained the support of the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), which spent $10,000 in Columbia, and the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), as well as the editorial support of the local newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. But opponents led by Columbia Police Chief Jerry Boehm and grassroots anti-drug activists ACT Missouri (http://www.moact.org) were able to carry the day by appealing to fears about the dangers of marijuana. The opposition effort was also aided and abetted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov), which sent deputy drug czar Scott Burns and agency flack Kevin Sabet to Columbia last week to reiterate the Bush administration's opposition to any relaxation of the marijuana laws.
The White House intervention rankled both the Columbia Tribune, which in a weekend editorial, told "Prosecutor Boy" Burns to go home, and university law student Anthony Johnson, who helped lead the Prop. 1 campaign. "Using taxpayer funds to affect a local election is not appropriate, and the Bush administration managed to create confusion about the proposal," a glum Johnson told the Associated Press Tuesday night.
But the Columbia Alliance for Patients and Education (CAPE) can claim at least a partial victory even in defeat, said Amy Fritz, CAPE's development director. "Even though we lost the vote," she told DRCNet, "we forced Chief Boehm to look at charging policies and acknowledge there were inconsistencies. As a result, he changed the department's policy so that, in most cases, people caught with 35 grams or less will go to municipal court."
That had been policy in Columbia prior to Boehm's arrival in 1999, but under Boehm the department had been sending people to state court who possessed as little as five grams.
"We are happy to see the policy changed," said Fritz, "but we want to see it made law and not just have a new policy that can be changed back later. We will be sitting down with the city council to try to pass an ordinance to give this the force of law."
While Fritz said it was too early for a definitive answer as to why the initiative lost, she pointed to local opposition organized by ACT Missouri. "We got quite a bit of opposition from them," she said. "They were really getting the word out about how this wasn't a good idea." The fact that school board elections were held on the same ballot probably didn't help either, Fritz said. "I think many concerned parents voted because of the school board election. There was great concern about the children," she said.
The ONDCP visit probably had mixed results, according to Fritz. "ONDCP probably had an effect on some people, but Columbia voters are generally a well-educated lot, and I think a lot of them were sort of insulted that people would come in from outside and tell them how to vote."
Despite the loss on Tuesday, said Fritz, reform efforts will continue in Columbia. "It is too soon to comment on whether we will try an initiative, but we will be working with the city council and we will continue to force the community to look at this issue. We opened a dialogue, and we're happy about that. We started to get people educated, and we're happy about that, too. We're not going away."