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      Marijuana advocates host panel as legalization debate continues

      About 20 people turned out for a marijuana discussion panel in Jefferson City Thursday evening.

      With a marijuana initiative likely to appear on the 2016 ballot, advocates for legalization are stepping up a campaign to draw attention to the issue.

      About 20 people attended a Thursday evening panel discussion on legalization hosted by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare. The discussion featured extensive commentary by Show-Me Cannabis director Dan Viets, who said marijuana laws disproportionately punish people for minor offenses.

      Highway Patrol statistics show 18,864 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. That accounts for 58 percent of all drug arrests in Missouri. By comparison, 2,335 people were arrested for possession of various types of opium or cocaine. Viets asserted marijuana itself has not killed anyone but alcohol and tobacco have. He drew a distinction between decriminalization and legalization, explaining that decriminalizing marijuana refers to reducing penalties to a fine and court summons, like a speeding ticket, but not actually legalizing the substance and regulating it like alcohol or tobacco.

      Thursday night's discussion comes amid vigorous debate nationwide over marijuana. Washington state and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use at the start of the year, and a similar measure went before a Missouri house committee earlier this month. Lawmakers have yet to act on that proposal.

      Many of those attending Thursday's panel supported legalization, but Ron Griffin told KRCG 13 he thought the panel was too one-sided for a policy debate of this magnitude. He said he liked getting to hear advocates' arguments but he felt they were trying to push a policy change to benefit a small segment of the adult population that would impact everyone. Griffin said the tax revenue from alcohol and tobacco falls far short of those substances' costs to society and he thought the same would happen if marijuana were legalized.