St. Louis police will no longer issue marijuana citations
St. Louis residents need no longer fear citation from the city for possessing 2 ounces of marijuana or less — or growing up to six cannabis plants.
That’s according to a bill signed Dec. 13 by St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. Board Bill 132 repeals three previous ordinances, all but legalizing small amounts of marijuana in the city. It holds that the “odor or visual presence” of cannabis can no longer be the sole reason for a police officer to initiate an interaction. And it decrees that city employees who test positive for marijuana may use their state-issued medical marijuana cards to avoid “adverse employer actions.”
The state launched its medical marijuana program last year.
Alderman Bret Narayan, who represents the 24th Ward, said the goal was to bring city ordinances in line with what’s permitted in the state program. Only in St. Louis, he acknowledged, you don’t need a medical marijuana card to enjoy the benefits.
For police, Narayan said, “it's hard for them to determine just with boots on the ground whether or not someone is in compliance with all of these various state laws,” he said. “They're not the Department of Health and Senior Services, who's tasked with that.” In essence, Board Bill 132 extends the possession rights enjoyed by medical card holders to all adults.
Even so, Narayan said the new law is not actually legalization. While St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner announced in 2018 that she would no longer prosecute possession cases involving less than 100 grams, Narayan noted that a successor could reverse that.
“If a different circuit attorney came in and they wanted to be tough on this particular type of crime, they could bring charges against anyone who was not a medical marijuana patient,” he said. The aldermen only control city ordinances, not state laws. (And federal laws, of course, continue to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, though it generally has not been a local enforcement priority.)
What the new law does do, though, is remove the possibility of citation for marijuana possession. St. Louis won headlines in 2013 for “decriminalizing” marijuana, but as the Riverfront Times reported four years later, police have continued to give people citations for possession, including fines of up to $500. The vast majority were Black.
In recent years, fines were dropped to $25, but the citations continued to be issued. Jones said that nearly 600 people were arrested in the city in the past three years for marijuana-related charges — nearly 500 of them Black. “Bringing city laws in line with the state constitution, along with preventing marijuana from being used as sole probable cause for search or arrest, will help reduce racial disparities and give officers the ability to better focus on violent crime,” she said in a statement.
And while the fines are small, Narayan noted that the repercussions are not. The citations showed up on background checks as drug convictions, causing problems for people seeking federally backed loans or public assistance.
Narayan said the consequences disproportionately affected lower-income residents.
“We've seen that many times when upper-middle-class and upper-class people run into the same problems that they pay a criminal defense attorney to come in,” Narayan said, noting that he himself has done criminal defense work. “And so you come in and you make a plea agreement with the prosecutor. So we see people who have the means to do so end up with a littering charge. Whereas people who don't have the means end up with a drug conviction.”
Narayan said he’d hoped to use the legislation to also expunge past convictions, but the city counselor believed it would trigger a battle with the state’s attorney general. Even so, Narayan was able to avoid the pitched battles that plagued Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green’s attempt to stop the city citations in 2017. The first-term alderman said he sought to find allies (or smooth opposition) everywhere he could, working behind the scenes to craft a bill with wide support.
“I think when you invite people to the table, and let them share their concerns, it's a whole lot easier to address those concerns before you've even started and it's a whole lot easier to get buy-in from the coalitions that you need to actually move substantial legislation like this,” he said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.