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Pot arrests plummet in Missouri state parks after officials update enforcement policies

Pot arrests plummet in Missouri state parks after officials update enforcement policies

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Legal marijuana growing in Missouri

A strain of marijuana called Power Plant is photographed on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, at the University City home of a grower who is cultivating in his basement legally for personal use. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Marijuana arrests in Missouri state parks plummeted last year as rangers began following enforcement policies that were updated after the state’s 2018 legalization of medical marijuana.

Officials issued the new policies in April 2020. Last year, arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Missouri state parks fell by nearly 60% compared with 2019.

In practice, the parks’ policy allows card-carrying medical marijuana patients to possess and consume cannabis within state parks, so long as they are consuming it in a private setting.

“Patients with qualifying medical conditions may possess and consume marijuana in a private setting (i.e., camper or tent), with the proper documentation,” said Miranda Fredrick, spokeswoman for Missouri State Parks. “Consumption in an open air public setting, i.e., around a campfire, is prohibited.”

Missouri State Parks reported 120 arrests for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana/synthetics in 2019. But last year, the number of such arrests fell 58% — to just 51, according to figures provided by the Department of Natural Resources.

At the same time, the number of warnings for 10 grams or less of marijuana/synthetics increased from 14 two years ago to 63 last year.

Thus, the number of enforcement actions remained somewhat stable, with 134 two years ago versus 114 last year.

Fredrick said the new policy “did have an impact” on last year’s figures.

Connie Patterson, spokeswoman for the DNR, said not all “arrests” involve handcuffing a person and transporting them to a local police station for booking.

“Speeding is a misdemeanor, and we release on summons,” she said. “But in the eyes of the law, it is equivalent to an arrest. If we summons for possession, we are still technically arresting them.”

In addition to the 10-grams-or-less citations, there were nine arrests and one warning in 2019 for possession of between 11 and 35 grams of marijuana/synthetics, a Class A misdemeanor that carries up to one year of jail time and a fine of up to $2,000.

But last year, officials reported only one such arrest.

Missouri voters legalized medical marijuana by approving constitutional Amendment 2 in 2018; the measure won support from almost two-thirds of voters.

The DNR marijuana policy recognizes “officer discretion in each enforcement circumstance.”

“Rangers will remain mindful that Amendment 2 created legal marijuana use and possession mechanisms for medically related reasons,” the policy states. “The presumption of innocence should proceed from the first indication that the marijuana encountered is for medicinal purposes, and all inquiries should bear that in mind.”

The policy continues, “Ranger emphasis will be on education over enforcement with respect to medical marijuana consumed illegally in public locations within state parks and historic sites.”

“If it is discovered the subject is illegally in possession of marijuana, ranger personnel will, at their discretion, follow current state law with respect to the consideration of whether or not to arrest the subject, or to warn and seize possessed quantities,” the policy states.

Fredrick said patients with out-of-state cards will be allowed to possess marijuana in state parks “if it appears to be in the original packing from the dispensary where they purchased it in their home state.”

According to the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association, Missouri has signed up more than 100,000 medical marijuana patients since the start of the program — or about 1.6% of the state’s 6.1 million residents.

More dispensaries are coming online. As of May 21, just before the start of the summer vacation season, 106 dispensaries had been approved to operate, up from 17 dispensaries in December.

The state reported $47.9 million in cumulative medical marijuana sales as of May.

Visits to Missouri’s 91 state parks and historic sites reached a near-record last year, with officials reporting more than 21.1 million visits.

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