St. Louis to end prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes

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ST. LOUIS — St. Louis prosecutors will no longer pursue charges for most low-level marijuana offenses, joining their counterparts in some other cities who have opted to redirect their resources toward more serious crimes.

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said in an interview Wednesday that her office will review more than 1,200 pending cases in which suspects are accused of possessing less than 100 grams of marijuana. She says most will be dismissed, except those with aggravating circumstances.

Gardner, a Democrat elected in 2016, said lower-level marijuana crimes make up about 20 percent of the prosecution docket in a city where the murder rate is among the highest in the nation.

“This frees up our resources to focus on those more serious cases,” Gardner told The Associated Press. “I think that we need to address how we better utilize our resources.”

St. Louis follows some other cities that have eased back on marijuana prosecutions.

In May, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced plans to largely stop prosecuting people for possessing or smoking marijuana, excepting for cases involving “demonstrated public safety concerns.” The change effective in August is expected to reduce marijuana prosecutions in Manhattan from roughly 5,000 per year to about 200.

The announcement followed a New York Times report that found that although whites, blacks and Hispanics have similar rates of marijuana use, about 87 percent of the people arrested for marijuana crimes in New York were black or Hispanic.

In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner said in February that his office dropped more than 50 marijuana possession cases and that he would no longer prosecute people for having small amounts of marijuana. Krasner said resources are better used to prosecute murder cases.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen earlier this year changed the city’s marijuana law to significantly reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts of pot. Those caught with 35 grams or less now face a maximum fine of $25. The fine was previously $100 to $500.

Gardner’s policy change has its critics.

St. Louis police spokeswoman Schron Jackson said in an email that despite Gardner’s edict, outlined in an email to her staff Tuesday, officers “will continue to enforce the Missouri Controlled Substance Laws as they are written.”

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said he was alarmed by the directive, noting that 100 grams of marijuana is far more than a typical user possesses.

“We’ve got a name for somebody riding around with 100 grams of marijuana in their car — a drug dealer,” Roorda said.

Gardner, though, said marijuana-related convictions often cause economic hardship by saddling people with criminal records. She said that while most cases will be dismissed, some suspects will be redirected to alternative programs, including those aimed at addressing addictions.