Drug Policy Reform in Missouri: City-Level Progress, Strong Headwinds

    A Missouri mayor recently announced a plan to pardon people with marijuana and psilocybin convictions. His reform follows other city-level efforts in Missouri to decriminalize certain drugs and reduce arrests. Taken together, these actions may help reverse some of the harms of the War on Drugs, especially on Black and Brown residents in the state.

    “Exciting news,” tweeted Mayor Jayson Stewart of Cool Valley, Missouri on August 16. “Starting today, I will pardon every person convicted of nonviolent offenses involving cannabis and/or psilocybin mushrooms. Will also begin looking into retroactive pardons.”

    Cool Valley is a small city—under one square mile and less than 1,200 residents, about 14 miles from St. Louis. Crossing Paths PAC, a psychedelic policy reform organization in Missouri, wrote that Mayor Stewart is the first in the state to use his executive clemency power to pardon psilocybin convictions.

    “To deny humanity access to such powerful, harmless, natural medicine is ignorant at best and pure evil at worst.”

    “Science was the biggest factor for me in making this decision,” Mayor Stewart told Filter. “Cannabis is shown to help drug addicts wean off of hard, dangerous drugs like opiates. Psilocybin has proven time and time again to eliminate depression and anxiety much more effectively than pharmaceuticals … To deny humanity access to such powerful, harmless, natural medicine is ignorant at best and pure evil at worst.”

    He described his plans to create a “safe haven” for these drugs in Cool Valley. “As long as people are being safe and not causing any harm, they will receive a pardon from me in regards to ‘crimes’ involving these plants,” he said. “In addition, our police officers have been instructed to cease any and all punishments for nonviolent citizens in simple possession of cannabis and mushrooms.”

    Mayors in many jurisdictions have the right to grant pardons for crimes related to city ordinances, he explained. Executive clemency is therefore the quickest and easiest way to reverse criminalization of drug users, he believes, and he wants to advocate for other mayors and governors to use that power in similar ways.

    Stewart’s reform followed that of Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Missouri. In February, Lucas became the first mayor in the state to seek pardons for municipal marijuana charges. “The city, in my view, doesn’t need to be in that business,” he said then. “I know there’s work to do there, but I hope my colleagues will keep an open mind in how we can make our local drug laws more fair and just.”

    Lucas’s office began accepting pardon applications days later from people with stand-alone marijuana or drug paraphernalia charges. The free applications process requires that residents provide identifying information including their charges, dates of convictions and case numbers. Applications are then reviewed case-by-case. If accepted, the person is absolved from criminal sentencing, or released from probation or parole.

    The charges are not expunged or wiped from one’s criminal record, however. And although Kansas City Councilman Brandon Ellington introduced a wider marijuana decriminalization measure last year, it ultimately failed to pass the Council, after members made amendments that watered down the bill. City lawmakers expressed concern and confusion about the bill’s potential impact—including whether it would still leave city residents with a criminal conviction, or in fact make it more likely they face a state conviction by ensuring that a higher court would take up marijuana charges.

    Part of the confusion is because Kansas City is a part of four different counties. The largest, Jackson County, actually decided to stop prosecuting most marijuana possession charges in November 2018, days after state voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. But the three smaller counties are still prosecuting such charges.

    Crossing Paths PAC told Filter that Ellington plans to introduce a Council proposal this year to decriminalize all drugs in Kansas City. Councilman Ellington’s office did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

    Building a coalition for drug policy reform is no easy task in a conservative state like Missouri.

    Meanwhile, Crossing Paths PAC hopes to help introduce legislation to decriminalize all drugs statewide. Filter reported last year on the group’s efforts to introduce a Decriminalize Nature resolution in the city of Columbia. Its goal was to emulate the successful efforts to decriminalize naturally-occurring psychedelic drugs in cities like Denver, Colorado, and Oakland and Santa Cruz in California.

    They soon found they had no support among Columbia’s councilmembers, so abandoned the effort. Bharani Kumar, a co-founder of Crossing Paths, explained to Filter that the statewide psychedelic decriminalization bill they now want to develop would look similar to the Denver or Oakland resolutions, but would also include synthetic drugs like LSD and MDMA that have shown therapeutic potential anecdotally and in research.

    “We haven’t found anyone yet who would carry the bill, but we’re starting with education,” Kumar said. “Most of these lawmakers don’t know much about the history of psychedelics or the health research that’s out there. So our job is helping inform them of the information before we talk about legislation.”

    Of course, building a coalition for drug policy reform is no easy task in a conservative state like Missouri. Half of the state’s population lives in St. Louis, Kansas City or other large cities like Springfield and Columbia. These major urban counties either voted for or leaned to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. The rest of the state, meanwhile, voted heavily for Trump.

    For a more localized perspective, consider that nearly all of the state’s 114 counties—save for the areas around St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia—voted for Republican Eric Greitens in 2016’s gubernatorial election. Currently, Republicans control the Missouri governorship, the state Senate and House, both US Senate seats, and six of its eight US House seats.

    A similar urban/rural split applied to the state’s 2018 medical marijuana referendum. Although Amendement 2 passed with 66 percent of the vote, the only areas that voted “yes” were those surrounding St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield, with St. Louis and Kansas City’s support in the high 80s.  

    Kumar reflected on the implications of these political dynamics. “You have to have a coalition of people from both St. Louis and Kansas City involved in any decriminalization effort,” he said, “and build a rapport with those local constituents.”

    “It’s also very important we target people in rural areas,” he added. “Many of those areas like more natural products, and you see more farmers’ markets and organic foods. We want to help them by allowing people to grow their own mushrooms and natural medicines.”


    Racial Injustice in Missouri

    No discussion about drug policy reform in Missouri can overlook the state’s central role in the Black Lives Matter movement. Five years ago, the police killing of Michael Brown, a young Black resident of Ferguson, helped spark the national drive for racial justice.

    The law enforcement response to large recent protests in the city also highlighted the militarization of local police departments, thanks to the War on Drugs. Kansas City, too, has been a center of Black Lives Matter protest activity. In November, a 15-year old Black boy was assaulted by police during a chase. The incident has led to an indictment of the officer by Jackson County, as well as renewed protests in the city.

    In recent years, St. Louis has been home to racial justice efforts like the Close the Workhouse campaign. This movement to shut down a local jail haunted by human rights abuses earned victory in July when the City Council voted unanimously to shut the facility by the end of this year.

    But St. Louis remains one of the most heavily policed cities in the US. According to 2015 FBI data, its police department was larger than any other city’s besides New York and Washington, DC. Tthe city ranked seventh in the US in police officers per capita. The city also spends more money on police, adjusted for population, than any US city except Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Washington, DC.

    In certain counties Black marijuana arrest rates were 10 times higher than for whites.

    Throughout Missouri, 2014 FBI data shows that police made over 35,000 drug arrests. Over 20,000 arrests were for marijuana alone. A 2020 ACLU analysis shows that the state’s marijuana arrests disproportionately target Black residents, who are 2.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested.

    But that disparity is much greater in certain counties. In Lafayette, Lincoln and Johnson Counties—suburban areas outside Kansas City and St. Louis—Black marijuana arrest rates were 10 times higher than for whites.

    For context, Missouri’s overall arrest numbers for marijuana are five times higher (and for all drugs, nearly twice as high) than neighboring Illinois, which has about double Missouri’s population. 

    Missouri also has an incarceration rate much higher than the national average, with the use of pre-trial detention swelling the state’s prisons and jails in the last 25 years. Today, more than two in 10 currently incarcerated residents are in local jails. Black residents are grossly overrepresented in carceral facilities, making up 12 percent of the general population but 40 percent of people behind bars.

    City-level progress toward pardoning certain drug convictions is promising. But a big caveat is that these efforts do not necessarily prevent new drug arrests and convictions from occurring. As the case of Kansas City shows, even city-level reform does not guarantee that residents won’t still be prosecuted by county courts.

    Psychedelic-specific decriminalization efforts in Missouri are similarly welcome but also—considering that so many arrests are related to drugs like opioids or cocaine—risk leaving many behind if they’re not accompanied by much wider reforms. 


    Photo of St. Louis, Missouri via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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