by Sam Levin
Last year, marijuana advocates in Missouri collected more than the required number of signatures for a local petition aimed at reducing the penalties for low-level pot offenses in the city of Springfield.
City leaders, however, circumvented the standard process outlined in the charter and blocked the marijuana "decriminalization" initiative in a way that violated the constitutional rights of the initiative's backers. So says a lawsuit filed this week in federal court (on view below), which alleges that Springfield infringed on advocates' right to petition their government.
"They don't have the power to outright reject the initiative petition," John Payne, Show-Me Cannabis executive director, tells Daily RFT.
Advocates do still hope to pass a decriminalization ordinance, while city officials argue that the lawsuit is without merit.
See also: - Springfield Politicians Again Reject Pot Reform Law, Activists Consider Lawsuit - Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Finally Gets Hearing on Last Day of Missouri Session - After Success With Pot Law Reform in St. Louis, Activists Look to Kansas City
Show-Me Cannabis -- the statewide marijuana advocacy group that has promoted these kinds of reforms in municipalities throughout Missouri and at the Capitol -- is one of several plaintiffs in the suit against the city of Springfield, the mayor, the city manager and a group of City Council members.
The marijuana advocates say that, with enough signatures for their initiative petition, the City Council had two options, as outlined in the Springfield charter: The council could reject it, which would send it directly to voters on the ballot in the November, 2012 election, or the members could vote to pass it, in which case it would be implemented.
"Instead, they chose to invent a third option," Payne says, "to pass it for the full purpose of repealing it later."
This tactic is not outlined in the charter and violates the rights of the petitioners, he says.
The complaint explains that the proposed "ordinance, among other things, reduced the penalties for possession of less than thirty five (35) grams of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia by reducing the maximum fine from $1,000.00 and/or up to 180 days in jail to a maximum fine of $150.00." The petition was submitted to the city in July of 2012.
The City Council adopted the ordinance in August, and then within a matter of days, several members introduced and sponsored a bill to repeal the measure in its entirety, the suit explains:
The action of City Council adopting General Ordinance No. 6011 and its immediate repeal within weeks was an illegal attempt to circumvent the intent of...the Springfield City Charter because Defendants cannot do indirectly what Defendants are forbidden from doing directly.
The ordinance was thus rejected and did not make it on the ballot.
Because of the timing, the advocates, the suit says, could not even seek judicial relief to force the city to put the measure on the ballot in the November election, thereby "depriving Plaintiffs of their constitutional right of free speech..."
"That is subverting the law," Payne says. "The right of petitioning your government is a part of the Missouri and U.S. constitution."
The suit seeks damages and also requests that the ordinance be put on the ballot in 2014 or 2016.
Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer tells Daily RFT that city officials did not violate the city charter in any way and argues that the proposed ordinance is illegal.
Continue for response from Springfield and a copy of the full complaint.
"It appeared to us to violate state and federal law," he says of the proposal, referencing a portion of the ordinance regarding expungements, by which offenders seek to have their records cleared.
He says the proposal was written in a way that would allow expungements outside of the boundaries written into Missouri law.
He argues the city cannot allow a measure to go to a vote of the people if it violates state and federal law. (Payne, in response, says he believes it was legal and that regardless, "They don't get to decide what is legal and illegal. They're not the judicial branch." He also argues that if a portion of the ordinance was found to be illegal in court, then it could be severed from the rest of the policy).
Wichmer also rejects the notion that the ordinance was passed with the intention of immediate repeal.
He says City Council members passed it with some believing that they might be able to amend it to make it legally sound. When they could not hammer out a solution, then they repealed it, he argues.
Asked if it was a deliberate pass and repeal tactic, he says, "I don't agree with that at all."
Payne says decriminalization efforts like this can make a big difference for hundreds of people facing these arrests every year. "This would probably drop that number dramatically and save those people...from having the arrests go on their permanent criminal record."
Payne says he hopes voters will eventually get an opportunity to consider this in Springfield, though he notes that by 2016, Show-Me Cannabis may very well be more focused on a statewide initiative to fully legalize marijuana in Missouri.
Here's the full complaint, filed on Wednesday.