Changes may be on the horizon for individuals facing drug charges in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, as legislators ponder a move that would essentially decriminalize marijuana. Area lawmakers are considering a bill that would lower the penalties for pot possession to the same level of severity as a traffic ticket, rather than an offense that could mean time in jail. The city's Board of Alderman has voted to approve the measure by a majority of 22-3.

The changes will help the court system by allowing police officers to shunt some drug cases into the municipal judicial arena. Violators would not be booked into custody; rather, they would simply be given a summons to appear in a municipal court at a future date. Local police officers are required to use the harsh state laws to determine actions toward offenders, largely because no local mandates have yet been instituted.

Currently, offenders who possess between a gram and 35 grams are charged with misdemeanors, which carry a potential year-long prison term and $1,000 fine. The new city ordinance would lower the penalty to a $500 maximum. The term "small amount" remains undefined; police policy is expected to clear up the exact measurement after the rules are formally promulgated.

Area officials support the move, saying that the changes could free up the court and police forces to prosecute more serious crimes. Marijuana offenders, most of whom are not drug dealers, would also be able to avoid the massive court costs often associated with criminal defense. Prosecutors in the area say they also agree with the decision, though they stress that offenders caught with large amounts of marijuana will still be prosecuted.

Even though these changes are expected to take effect soon, the current marijuana laws are still in effect. People facing drug charges under existing rules should consider enlisting the services of a qualified defense attorney who can help preserve their rights and guide them through the legal system.

Source: stltoday.com, "Reduction in marijuana penalties approved by St. Louis Board of Alderman," Nicholas J.C. Pistor, April 16, 2013