As of 2017, it is a misdemeanor to possess less than 35 grams of marijuana in Missouri. Without expungement, those arrested prior to this change still have a felony conviction on their record. (Graphic/The Beacon)

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In 2020, medical marijuana dispensaries in Missouri generated nearly $30 million in state tax revenue. That same year, 10,650 Missourians were arrested for marijuana possession, according to FBI crime data. 

The growing disconnect in a state that reaps profits from the sale of marijuana for medical purposes while also prosecuting residents for possessing it is leading to calls for the state to allow the possession of small amounts of marijuana and expunge previous convictions. 

“Depending on what county you’re in, you could have a pipe that has crumbs of marijuana in it, and you could be charged with possession and have a felony on your record,” said state Sen. Barbara Washington, a Democrat from Kansas City.

A Missouri marijuana possession bill would expunge certain convictions

Washington is sponsoring Senate Bill 793, which would automatically expunge all convictions of marijuana possession of less than 35 grams, dating to 1998. 

Washington has sponsored similar bills in the last two legislative sessions. None has yet come to a vote. This year, with bipartisan statewide conversation around marijuana decriminalization and justice reform, she hopes her bill can finally be approved in committee and reach the floor of the Senate.

Advocates say it is difficult to know exactly how many people are living with expungeable convictions as that data is not specifically tracked. But FBI crime data has recorded 377,234 arrests in Missouri for marijuana possession since 1998. Those account for 55% of total arrests made for drug possession over that period. 

Despite partial marijuana decriminalization in Missouri in 2017, marijuana possession still accounted for 46% of drug possession arrests in 2020. Currently, it is a misdemeanor to possess less than 35 grams, punishable only by a fine. Possession of any more than 35 grams remains a felony.

Washington said defendants in Missouri are rarely incarcerated for marijuana possession. But many still face severe lifelong consequences for their convictions.

Until 2014, people with a drug felony on their record were ineligible for food stamps, and many apartments proudly reject any applicants with a felony on their record. 

“We actually punish someone for life for that—you would be prevented from Section 8 for the rest of your life,” Washington said, referring to the federal housing subsidy program. “You never know when you may need something like that.”

Missouri marijuana possession arrests disproportionately affect Black communities

In Missouri, Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at more than double the rate of white people, according to the ACLU. In Clay County, Missouri, this increases to three times the rate. And in Johnson County, Missouri, and Lafayette County, Missouri, Black people are more than 10 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

Calvin Williford, an organizer at Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2), said highly restrictive laws on those with drug convictions are a result of a history of racial discrimination.

MORE2 works to improve the lives of convicted felons. It has helped eliminate employment, welfare and housing restrictions for those with a felony record.

“We know that there is a school-to-prison pipeline that absolutely, unequivocally leads to more individuals of color, Black and brown children ending up in the criminal justice system,” Williford said. “And we know a disproportionate number of people coming out and trying to reenter society, therefore, are people of color who are then facing these barriers.”

A conviction for marijuana possession can prohibit certain jobs, degree programs and apartments

Williford himself has a felony conviction related to political corruption, and after leaving prison, he encountered direct experience with the barriers. Those with a felony conviction still have the right to vote, but Williford said he has been denied the opportunity to volunteer in hospitals and to start a gym membership. Even people who don’t serve prison time struggle with a felony conviction on their record, he added.

He named several apartment companies in the Kansas City area that don’t rent to convicted felons and said he’s worked with students who have been rejected from nursing school because the school’s insurance program won’t cover those with a felony record.

“Every day I talk to individuals [for whom] expungement would be a life-altering event,” Williford said. “I’m very fortunate to have a family, a support system of friends that were there for me. Many individuals don’t have that luxury. How do you get to work? How do you get that job? Where are you going to live?”

Several petitions would expunge marijuana convictions

The push to expunge marijuana possession offenses extends beyond bills proposed by Washington and other lawmakers. Three groups so far have had one or more petitions approved for circulation seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Legal Missouri, Cannabis Patient Network and Fair Access Missouri all include language in their petitions to expunge previous felony possession convictions from a person’s record.

The Kansas City chapter of NORML, which stands for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has endorsed the Legal Missouri measure. Executive Director Jamie Kacz said the provision calling for expungement plays a critical role.

“It’s medically legal and it will be legal for adult use, so we should no longer be incarcerating people for it,” Kacz said. “We should not be incarcerating people for something that other individuals are profiting off of now.”

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....