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Jan 25

Efforts to Change Drug Laws and the Public Defender System Ramp Up

Reforming Challenges to Missouri’s Legal System

Efforts to Change Drug Laws and the Public Defender System Ramp Up

By Mike Ferguson

(St. Charles, MO) – From “Just Say No” to “Just Say Legalize”?

That’s what some activists want the Show Me State to do by decriminalizing possession and use of marijuana.

Show Me Cannabis Regulation tried to put the issue on the 2012 ballot but fell short. In a recent interview on “Missouri Viewpoints”, the group’s John Payne promised another attempt either in 2014 or 2016.

MWSnap068The group wants to change how Missouri law addresses pot and wants it regulated more like alcohol instead of being treated like a hard drug. While marijuana legalization efforts in other states sometimes focus on controversial “medical marijuana” claims that smoking or ingesting it can help patients dealing with AIDS, cancer and a number of other conditions, Payne says there’s a bigger picture to address.

“…there are a lot of medicinal properties in marijuana and, yes, when people use it recreationally that’s not always the best thing for them. But, as adults, they should have the freedom to make their own choices.

“It’s no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco.”

Some communities in Missouri are already taking steps locally. In St. Louis, a proposal to reduce the penalties for possession small amounts of marijuana would make the offense the rough equivalent of getting a traffic ticket.

Columbia voters approved a similar measure almost nine years ago and a similar debate is underway in Springfield.

The group is not advocating a complete legalization of marijuana in Missouri, though. Under their proposal, possession and use of pot would be legal only for those 21 and over. They say the drug would then be regulated and taxed, generating revenue for the state and local governments. Payne believes that would actually reduce the number of young people abusing the drug as well.

“Use of cigarettes among teenagers is down while use of marijuana among teenagers is up. And that’s under a regime where cigarettes are a legal, regulated drug and marijuana is an illegal, unregulated drug.”

The group is looking toward another referendum approach, knowing that getting changes to Missouri’s drug laws through the state Legislature is highly unlikely when the proposals involve lightening up on what’s illegal now.

Regardless of what is legal and what is illegal, the right to have a lawyer in Missouri’s courtrooms is also being reexamined.

MWSnap069Cat Kelly, Missouri’s Director of the State Public Defenders’ Office, is also featured in the “Missouri Viewpoints” interview about the funding challenges facing her department.

While almost every branch of state government is asking for more money or at least hoping to avoid more funding cuts, Kelly wants the public defender system higher on the priority list.

Almost 400 public defenders are part of that process and their work extends to every county in the state.

“They represent people charged with anything from the most minor of misdemeanors – minor in possession of alcohol, fishing on the wrong side of the line with live bait” Kelly explains “all the way up to capital murder, and that’s part of the problem.

“We have too many minor things that require public defenders under our law.”

The cases off all kinds continue to pile up and Kelly says that’s not leaving the lawyers enough time or resources to provide the defense required at times.

To qualify for a public defender, the defendant must be unable to afford a lawyer of their own and be facing a charge that could potentially result in a jail sentence if convicted.

Kelly says that service, in addition to being a Constitutional mandate, is also important to Missouri as a whole.

“I don’t think anybody in this state or this country thinks that we should have two justice systems; one for people who have money and one for people who don’t. We are built, as a nation, on the idea that everybody is equal before the law regardless of whether you have money in your pocket or not.”

In the interview, Kelly addresses concerns raised by the State Auditor’s office regarding the handling of caseloads and the decisions to turn away cases when local and state defenders’ offices have too many requests for services.

“Over the last 20 years…staffing for the public defender system has increased 58%, which sounds fabulous, except that caseload has increased by 70%.”

Kelly hopes for a combination of remedies for the challenges, including increased funding and staffing, increased contracting some defense cases to private lawyers and reevaluating which crimes should result in potential jail time for the accused.

On the web: http://show-mecannabis.com

On the web: http://www.publicdefender.mo.gov

Permanent link to this article: http://missouriviewpoints.com/efforts-to-change-drug-laws-and-the-public-defender-system-ramp-up/