Yesterday, we reported on the allegations of Sergeant Gary Wiegert that the metro police department is suppressing his free-speech rights by blocking him from lobbying for marijuana reforms. His attorney has since filed a formal complaint in federal court, on view below.
But what does this latest controversy say about the police department's stance on marijuana?
Show-Me Cannabis, the advocacy group in question in this dispute, says the department's retaliation is noteworthy -- given that St. Louis officials have generally been supportive of the very cause Wiegert is advocating.
Part of the confusion in this case is that while Show-Me Cannabis, a Missouri advocacy group, supports the legalization of marijuana, the policy change that Wiegert is pushing is a decriminalization effort that would reduce the punishments for those found with small amounts of pot. In fact, at the state level and locally in St. Louis there are currently no efforts to legalize marijuana -- even if that is a long-term goal of Show-Me Cannabis.
As we've reported, a St. Louis Board of Aldermen proposal this year aims to give law enforcement the option to issue a summons in certain marijuana cases, with the goal of using resources more efficiently and not wasting time and money on arrests and prosecution through the circuit court when unnecessary. This mirrors decriminalization proposals at the state level.
The St. Louis Police Department has supported this.
So says John Payne, executive director of Show-Me Cannabis Regulation.
At a hearing last month on the Board of Aldermen bill, a metro police sergeant testified that it was a good proposal that would save the department resources, Payne tells Daily RFT. And Alderman Shane Cohn, the sponsor, has in the past told us that the police department favors the change. The St. Louis bill we be brought up again in April and could very well pass, Payne says.
If police department higher-ups support the concept, why are they (as the new lawsuit alleges) opposing Wiegert's lobbying?
Continue for more details on the lawsuit and on pot reform proposals.
"I think there's some misunderstanding," Payne says. "He's not lobbying in Jefferson City for full legalization. There's no full legalization bill on the table right now. His job is much more focused.... And he is not claiming to represent the department. He never has been. He is representing himself and Show-Me Cannabis when he is lobbying."
Wiegert's lawsuit alleges that he got the necessary approvals to lobby at the capitol, but when police officials found out it was for Show-Me Cannabis, they retroactively denied his approval, citing an unrelated license issue.
A police spokeswoman yesterday declined to comment, citing pending litigation, and deferred to Police Chief Sam Dotson's original statement, which says, in its entirety:
Sgt. Wiegert is not representing the Department. His comments are his own and not what is expected of our officers. The Department will not comment any further on an ongoing personnel matter that is subject to legal action.
Wiegert and Show-Me Cannabis say it's clear the department is trying to block his lobbying because of his affiliation with a pro-legalization group, even if that's not what Wiegert is promoting. And regardless, they argue, he has a right to free speech.
"It's unconstitutional," says Payne. "This is clearly an infringement on Sgt. Wiegert's freedom of speech.... They did approve it, then it became an issue when they found out what he was lobbying for."
He adds, "They are trying to find anything they can use to keep him from speaking out."
(Interestingly, when Daily RFT asked Mayor Francis Slay about the decriminalization proposal last month, he said that he opposes legalization -- which, again, is not on the table anywhere in Missouri at this time.)
Here's how Wiegert's legal team describes his marijuana stance in the lawsuit:
The undertakings by the Plaintiff as a lobbyist for Show-Me Cannabis related to furthering legislation designed to provide law enforcement authorities with the option of issuing a summons for an ordinance violation to individuals found to unlawfully possess small amounts of marijuana in quantities presumed to be for personal consumption rather than require the time consuming process of arresting, booking, processing, and transporting criminally accused to be held while the officer applies for a warrant, thus permitting the law enforcement officer to remain on the streets to address more serious and threatening situations in furtherance of the safety and welfare of those for whom the police are charged with the duty of serving and protecting.
Of the decriminalization proposal, Payne says, "We do ultimately want full legalization. But this is a step in the right direction."
Here's the full complaint filed yesterday.