Legislation to revamp Missouri’s criminal code became law last week absent the signature of Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon. The measure, Senate Bill 491, marks the first time in 30 years that state lawmakers have enacted significant sentencing reforms in the Show-Me State.
Provisions in the measure reduce the state’s marijuana possession penalties, which are among some of the strictest in the nation. Presently, possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana is classified as a Class A criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a one-year incarceration and a $1,000 fine.
Under SB 291, the possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis will be reclassified as a Class D misdemeanor (the lowest criminal classification available), punishable by a fine only. The possession of greater quantities of cannabis will remain a Class A misdemeanor offense.
In 2010, Missouri police made nearly 18,500 criminal arrests for marijuana possession offenses, one of the highest totals in the country.
Separate provisions in the bill amend Missouri's "prior and persistent drug offender" law. The changes eliminate the mandate that persons convicted of a drug felony offense for the third time do not qualify for probation or parole. In December of 1993, Missouri resident Jeff Mizanskey was found guilty of marijuana possession, his third criminal offense, and sentenced to life in prison as a repeat offender under this statute. (Read more about Jeff and his clemency campaign here.)
Unfortunately, despite last week’s passage of SB 491, Missouri residents ought not to expect legal relief any time soon. That is because the changes to the Missouri criminal code will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2017. As a result, local drug law reform advocates like Show-Me Cannabis and Missouri NORML are pushing for a 2016 statewide initiative to legalize and regulate the plant’s use by adults. Advocates were initially eyeing a 2014 campaign, but ultimately decided to postpone the effort after polling data identified only 45 percent support for the measure among those likely to vote this November.