Debate continues over marijuana ordinance changes

A Thursday hearing on whether to allow small-scale marijuana cultivation turned into a broader debate on pot's costs and benefits.

Thursday evening's public hearing concerned a proposal to modify Columbia's marijuana ordinance to let people who use cannabis for medical purposes grow up to six plants. The bill would eliminate penalties for people who grow that many plants for nonmedical purposes, though it would not legalize cultivation for such people. The city council tabled the bill last month and asked the city's Substance Abuse Advisory Commission for a recommendation on it.

Most of the public testimony concerned the pros and cons of marijuana rather than the text of the bill itself. Supporters like MU graduate student Aaron Malin said Columbia has not become a drug hub and use among young people has not increased since voters approved an ordinance a decade ago that reduced marijuana possession within city limits to an infraction. Show-Me Cannabis chair Dan Viets noted thousands of people are in prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"There is no evidence to believe, that I've seen, that Columbia's ordinances have encouraged any greater use of marijuana by young people than happens in communities other than Columbia," Viets told reporters.

Opponents argued marijuana's effects on young people were being ignored in the legalization debate. Heather Harlan, a licensed substance abuse counselor who specializes in working with adolescents, said marijuana affects not only the person using it but the people around them. Youth Community Coalition Coordinator Ryan Worley said legalization supporters are ignoring pot's effects on brain development.

"The most common studies that people find are problem-solving difficulties, memory loss, and there are also the co-occurring problems that happen when youth use this with the presence of a mental illness," he said.

Substance Abuse Advisory Commission Chair Chris Hawf told reporters two key issues came out of the hearing. First, the proposal changes the ordinance's wording from "adult" to "person," something opponents argued could allow minors to access marijuana. Panel members said they wanted to get legal advice on that distinction. Second, he said panel members wanted hard answers on how much marijuana someone can grow from six plants.

Thursday's debate left panel members divided over whether their mission was to provide a recommendation on the proposal or on the city's broader policies regarding cannabis. Hawf said he believed the council merely wanted advice on the proposal at hand.

Commission members plan to consult medical and legal experts and law enforcement officials in future hearings on the bill. The council asked the panel to come up with a recommendation by the end of summer.