What a long, strange trip it has been helping cannabis law reform activists in Springfield, Missouri. About a year ago, Springfield activists requested financial help gathering enough signatures to place a local marijuana decriminalization measure on the November 2012 ballot. Under the proposed measure, citizens possessing under 35 grams of marijuana would be subjected to a civil infraction, instead of a misdemeanor offense, thus preserving the educational and employment opportunities of those caught with personal amounts of marijuana. Springfield, the third largest city in the Show-Me State, is home to Missouri State University and is a conservative city right within the Bible Belt, making for a relatively volatile political mix and, what should have been, an interesting General Election vote.
Initiative signature gatherers, some volunteering their time, braved the sweltering Missouri Summer and collected over 5,000 signatures, easily qualifying a decriminalization measure for the November ballot. Before the measure would get to the voters, however, the Springfield City Council would have an opportunity to pass the measure outright (which seemed unlikely) or send the proposal onto the November ballot. Sending the measure to the ballot certainly seemed like the most likely outcome, as that has been par for the course in other jurisdictions. Certainly, not a shoe-in for a victory, but local activists were hopeful that a November election, representing the most democratic election with the highest turnout, provided a path to victory.
Local Springfield attorney, Robert Sweere, urged the City Council to respect the will of the voters. Unfortunately, the council voted 7-2 to repeal the ordinance and demonstrate their lack of respect for their constituents and the democratic process.
Shockingly, the Springfield City Council passed the marijuana decriminalization measure. Even more shockingly, a majority of the council voted to pass the measure only with the intention of repealing the measure as soon as possible. In fact, about a month later, the measure was indeed repealed, denying Springfield voters the opportunity to have their say on the matter. Clearly, this political chicanery violated the spirit of the city’s initiative petition law, a couple of city council members have admitted as much. In addition to violating the spirit of the law, it is very likely that the council members also violated federal civil rights law by treating a political class differently than how every other political class had been treated. Never before, or since, has the Springfield City Council subverted the city’s initiative petition process by passing and repealing a measure, denying citizen’s the right to vote on a matter that should have been placed before them in the next election.
Council members claimed that alleged illegal provisions in the measure, despite a standard severability clause that would cut out any provision deemed illegal, and the cost of adding the proposal to the November ballot, as reasons for denying citizens and opportunity to vote on the measure. Actions by the city council, before and since, demonstrate that their stated reasons for subverting democracy were merely a smokescreen to discriminate against cannabis law reform activists.
Instead of immediately filing a federal lawsuit against Springfield, the American Victory Coalition, conferred with local activists and decided to hire Carnahan, Evans, Cantwell & Brown, a respected local law firm to help negotiate a compromise measure. The law firm, had previously settled with the city regarding a different initiative matter. Over the course of several months, we thought that a compromise measure had been worked out.
Amos Bridges, of the Springfield News-Leader, has done an excellent job reporting the details of the negotiations:
Chip Sheppard, the Springfield attorney representing the petitioners, said council’s action also was unconstitutional, violating his clients’ rights to petition government and to receive equal treatment, among others.
Every other petition submitted in recent years — including those containing allegedly illegal provisions — have been sent to voters, said Sheppard, who represented several local businesses that successfully sued to overturn the petition-based E-Verify ordinance voters approved in February 2012.
Rather than immediately filing suit, Sheppard said he’s worked for the past several months to identify a middle ground. With feedback from council members as well as city and county law enforcement officials, he thought he had crafted an amended bill that council and his clients could stomach.
Acquiescing to concerns of council members and local law enforcement, we grudgingly decided to agree to a compromise measure that provided several exceptions to treating offenders under the decriminalized ordinance, including anyone with a felony within the past 5 years and if the offender was committing a crime while possessing marijuana. In fact, we even agreed to a provision that would have allowed the county prosecutor to remove a marijuana offender from city court to enforce the more harsh state law, completely at the prosecutor’s discretion. We negotiated in good faith and felt that we had crafted a compromise that cannabis law reform activists, the Springfield City Council and local law enforcement could live with.
The Springfield News-Leader urged the council members to pass the sensible compromise:
Council made a troubling decision when it first passed, then immediately repealed the action. With several Council members making it clear that there was no way they could support any move toward legalizing marijuana, instead they preferred to overturn a legal political process. It is disturbing that they would choose to take such action, especially with the unlikelihood of passage at the polls.
Now it is time to pay the piper. While the News-Leader Editorial Board initially called on City Council to send the question to the voters last year, the board has now determined that Council should pass the watered-down version now before them — and let it stand this time.
Council is fortunate that backers of this law have been willing to work with them to make the proposal more palatable. Now, Council needs to keep its part of the bargain.
Regardless of how one feels about marijuana, the Springfield City Council’s actions are simply disgraceful and dishonor the democratic process.
Unfortunately, the Springfield City Council voted against the compromise (2-6) at their May 20th meeting. Council members Doug Burlison and Mike Carrol voted for the compromise. Mr. Burlison noted that it simply isn’t a good policy to “mark people for life when they are arrested for a marijuana charge” while Mr. Carrol stated, “It appears to me that this group received disparate treatment.”
Very tellingly, the council voted to send a citizen referendum on a Wal-Mart rezoning measure to a special August election. Once again, the Springfield News-Leader:
Council voted 5-4 in February to rezone the property — now home to several houses and the Calvary Temple Life360 church — from residential to general retail, paving the way for a 41,000-square-foot Walmart Neighborhood Market.
Opponents successfully circulated a referendum petition after the vote, putting the rezoning on hold and forcing council to either repeal the change — restoring the property’s earlier, residential zoning — or send the question to voters at the Aug. 6 election.
A number of council members previously have questioned the legality of the petition, saying it could discourage other developers if council’s zoning decisions are allowed to be overturned. But only two of the eight council members present Monday commented on their positions before the vote.
Why didn’t the Springfield City Council, in an effort to save the city the money of printing up ballots for a special election, just pass the rezoning measure and then repeal it a month later? I think that we know the anser: subverting the democratic process is only utilized when marijuana law reform activists are the ones seeking to place a measure on the ballot.
Now, the American Victory Coalition and local activists have to decide our next step. Do we give up? Do we gather signatures and force the Springfield City Council to face this issue again? Or do we sue in federal court, seeking attorneys’ fees, actual damages and punitive damages large enough to discourage this city council, and all city councils, from abusing their power and subverting democracy? Civil rights activists often face setbacks as the political establishment places obstacles in the way of progress and, despite obstacles and the occasional defeat, activists fighting for freedom and equality don’t give up.
At this point, the abuse of power goes above and beyond marijuana law reform, as democracy at its basic level has been attacked by the Springfield City Council. We don’t know exactly the next steps we will take, but I wouldn’t bet on us giving up, so stay tuned as this long, strange trip continues.
NOTE: The National Cannabis Coalition is a subdivision of the American Victory Coalition. This blog originally was posted at www.americanvictorycoalition.com.