Police in Columbia, Missouri, are determined to save voters there from themselves. In November, voters in the central Missouri college town approved a local ordinance that sets a maximum fine for marijuana possession of $250 and charges violators under a city ordinance -- not state law -- so that students need not fear losing eligibility for federal financial aid in the event they get busted with a joint. Now, the Columbia Police Officers Association is preparing a petition drive to overturn the ordinance.
Saying police were "caught off guard" by November's election results, association president Sterling Infield told a press conference last Friday that police will go door-to-door seeking signatures for a petition asking the city council to revisit the ordinance. City officials have so far showed little interest in repudiating the will of the voters, Infield complained, as he vowed to put an initiative on the local ballot if necessary. "If that doesn't work, we'll take the issue back to the ballot," he threatened.
Infield may already have gotten off on the wrong foot. In a letter to city officials complaining about the ordinance, he referred to the shooting death of Columbia police officer Molly Bowden and the wounding of officer Curtis Brown by a man who had a previous record of misdemeanor marijuana possession. That man, Richard Thiel Evans, killed himself in January after shooting Brown. "To stop this ordinance would bring a small degree of justice back to Officer Molly Bowden and Officer Curtis Brown, who risked all to protect their community," Infield wrote.
After criticism over linking the ordinance to the shootings, Infield said he was not attempting to use the shootings to oppose the ordinance. But he couldn't help himself. "At the same time, he had drugs in his car -- the same drugs we're facing today," he said of Evans.
The police association is also attempting to raise fears that the ordinance does make it possible for state parole officials to know automatically that a parole has been charged under the ordinance. Under state parole guidelines, any drug offense by a parole is considered a parole revocation, but Columbia's marijuana possession tickets do not make their way into the state parole department database.
But even that ploy is drawing criticism. Eleanor Wickersham of the League of Women Voters told the AP Infield the police association was using scare tactics. "He's trying to associate it with rape and murder," she said.
Meanwhile, while the police association bemoans the ordinance passed by popular vote in November, Columbia police are busily enforcing it. According to a Tuesday report in the Columbia Missourian, police are ticketing more people per month under the ordinance than they arrested prior to its passage. From November to February, police wrote 141 tickets for pot possession, compared with 100 arrests made during the same period a year earlier. And last month's 44 tickets was the largest single month total in the last 10 years, the Missourian reported.