CLAYTON — When he was the St. Louis County police chief, Tim Fitch oversaw a department enforcing state and county ordinances that punished misdemeanor possession of marijuana with up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 — or both.
A lot has changed in the seven years since he retired from the department.
While federal law still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD, 17 states — and two territories and the District of Columbia — have fully legalized marijuana use. And Missouri and 10 other states allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Fitch, a Republican elected to the St. Louis County Council in 2018, has watched as state and local laws evolved.
“A lot of what I thought might happen — huge increases in addiction and substance abuse — hasn’t really materialized,” he said. “When it comes to someone having a small amount of marijuana for personal use — they’re not selling it, not driving when they’re using it — I just decided that I’ve seen enough in the last five years to soften my stance on this.”
On Tuesday, the St. Louis County Council voted 6-1 for a measure that reduces the penalties for misdemeanor pot possession — 35 grams or less — eliminating the possibility of jail time and cutting the fine to a maximum of $100.
Fitch, the ex-police chief who served more than 30 years in law enforcement, was the sponsor.
The bill will get the signature of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, spokesman Doug Moore said Wednesday.
In a separate but coincidental vote Tuesday, the Maplewood City Council voted unanimously to cut a $100 penalty for misdemeanor marijuana possession to no more than $1, under a bill sponsored by freshman Council member Sarah Crosley, Ward 2.
The county and Maplewood join the city and St. Louis and Webster Groves in eliminating jail sentences and cutting fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana, despite resistance from the GOP-led Legislature, where legalization of recreational marijuana still faces resistance. Elsewhere in the state, Kansas City and Columbia have adopted similar measures.
Others likely to follow
Pat Kelly, director of the Municipal League of Metropolitan St. Louis, said he’s unaware of any other local governments in the region that have cut penalties for pot possession. But there will likely be more soon, he said.
St. Louis County government’s change will likely prompt its municipalities — there are 88 in the county — to reexamine their own ordinances, in the same way cities implemented bans on smoking inside restaurants one by one, Kelly said.
“We want to be consistent throughout St. Louis County so I think you’ll see a number of cities adjust their ordinances relatively shortly,” Kelly said. “Like every regulation, they tend to spread from place to place and evolve.”
Supporters of decriminalization point to studies showing that white, Black and other non-white people use marijuana at similar rates — but Black people are disproportionately criminalized for marijuana use. The fines and court costs can be expensive, and a conviction makes it harder to find jobs or apply for federal housing loans.
“That’s on their record for the rest of their lives,” Fitch said. “We’re past that as a country.”
“I see some people today that maybe I did give them a marijuana ticket when they were 18, and they’re productive adults today.”
Crosley, the Maplewood official, said the changes eliminate disproportionate harm to Black marijuana users and free up police resources for crimes with victims. And prosecuting misdemeanor possession hasn’t substantially reduced marijuana use, she said.
“It makes less sense to pursue this when it’s not resulting in less drug use but it is resulting in more harm,” she said.
In the county, many municipal charges of misdemeanor pot possession weren’t being prosecuted to the full penalty or weren’t being prosecuted at all anyway, Fitch said.
“What I’m doing is bringing the actual penalty in line closer with the reality that is happening today,” he said.
A growing number of law enforcement agencies, judges and prosecutors are shifting away from prosecuting low-level offenses like misdemeanor pot possession, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In St. Louis, police as early as 2000 had slowed prosecution of misdemeanor pot possession even before the Board of Aldermen in 2013 began decriminalizing it, he said.
Rosenfeld said he supported cutting penalties for minor pot possession, but said more studies are necessary to see how the shift would affect policing or crime rates. Limited evidence has suggested little to no effect, he said.
“We want to reduce the criminal justice system’s imprint — with all the stigma it has for someone’s job or housing prospects — to the degree possible, while maintaining public safety.”
St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell have chosen not to prosecute state charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession, but their policies did not restrict police from filing municipal charges for misdemeanor pot possession.
The legislative change in St. Louis County, for example, will restrict county police officers from issuing anything more than a maximum $100 ticket, Fitch said.
Dan Viets, a Columbia-based attorney with the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the changes in St. Louis County and Maplewood didn’t go far enough to fully decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, because a future county prosecutor could choose to prosecute state charges of misdemeanor possession. But they marked an important step in that direction, he said.
“It’s great to see a more enlightened attitude, especially among people with a law enforcement background,” he said.
On Tuesday, Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, was the sole vote against the county bill.
Trakas said he considered marijuana a gateway to harder drugs, and that a reduction in the penalty for pot possession would encourage an escalation in drug use.
“I do not want to send the message that somehow recreational use of marijuana is akin to alcohol — I don’t believe it is,” he said. “I do believe it is a gateway drug.”
Fitch said Wednesday that he thinks marijuana is still a gateway drug, but not for the vast majority of users. The remaining $100 fine is meant to ward off people who would try marijuana for the first time without such a penalty.