List grows of states, municipalities changing marijuana laws

As this blog has noted in prior posts, Georgia has comparatively harsh laws in place addressing drug crimes, even drug charges involving first-time non-violent offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana intended for personal use.

According to the Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform and Education (CARE), state law enforcement officials arrested as many as 40,000 persons on marijuana-related charges in the state in 2011. That advocacy groups says that the state’s hard-line response strains prison resources, costs millions of unnecessary dollars and hurts rather than helps offenders, given its punitive thrust.

A growing number of people and advocacy organizations in other states are voicing similar views, the result being that material changes in marijuana laws have been made in a number of jurisdictions.

Notably, the states of Washington and Colorado recently passed laws legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. A growing minority of states now have laws on their books providing for medical marijuana.

And now, municipalities, too, are enacting legislation regarding marijuana possession that is less punitive than state law. A recent example is a change approved earlier this month by legislators in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Board of Aldermen in that city voted overwhelmingly in favor of giving police officers discretion to channel marijuana cases involving a “small amount” of pot to municipal court (what precisely constitutes a small amount has yet to defined) . That allowance will result in many instances in persons possessing pot being fined for a municipal offense rather than being criminally charged under state law.

The difference in outcome is significant. A municipal fine under the new ordinance will be between $100 and $500. Under state law, a first offender charged with a small amount of marijuana is criminally charged and can be sentenced to a year in jail and fined a much higher amount than that.

One alderman says that the new bill “gives fairness.” Other supporters say that the change will enable police departments to more effectively devote resources to serious crime and save taxpayers money.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Reduction in marijuana penalties approved by St. Louis Board of Aldermen,” Nicholas J.C. Pistor, April 16, 2013