JEFFERSON CITY — Card-carrying medical marijuana patients are still on the wrong side of the law if they consume cannabis while visiting any of Missouri's state parks.
Missouri State Parks is finalizing a new marijuana enforcement policy, set for release next spring, in response to the medical marijuana ballot initiative voters approved in November 2018, said Connie Patterson, spokeswoman for the agency, which manages 91 parks and historic sites.
She said that unless Missouri law changes, campers with medical marijuana cards won't be able to light up without risking arrest.
"The possession would no longer be illegal with the card," Patterson said of certified patients, including those with out-of-state certifications. But, "they can't smoke the marijuana on a park bench."
There are other circumstances that aren't as clear. Could someone smoke in their tent? What about their RV?
"We can't answer hypotheticals," Patterson said. "We would deal with this on a case-by-case basis, pursuant to the law. This is part of what we are still working through. We want the policy to address these nuances."
The Department of Health and Senior Services, which regulates the new medical marijuana program, says it is now legal for patients with valid department cards to possess marijuana — even though sales at state-licensed dispensaries aren't scheduled to start until next year.
Though a policy for state parks has yet to be issued, Patterson said current enforcement reflects DHSS' understanding of the law.
So far, about 22,000 Missourians have received medical marijuana patient cards, thousands more than University of Missouri analysts predicted in a report issued earlier this year.
The state's parks system has boasted record attendance in recent years, with visitation topping 20 million in each of the last three years, according to agency figures.
There have been hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana arrests along the way.
Patterson said rangers typically issue citations or warnings to visitors caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana, depending on the circumstances.
Still, in 2018, there were 171 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Missouri state parks, up from 82 the year before, Patterson said. So far this year, she said, there had been 123 misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests.
Patterson said a drop in 2017 may have been because the ranger program was short-staffed for part of the year.
Possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana in Missouri is a class D misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time.
Even so, Dan Viets, a Columbia defense attorney who has represented clients facing marijuana charges for 34 years, said Missouri police still "routinely" make arrests in such cases.
"It's still a crime technically," he said, adding that subsequent offenses, or possessing even 11 grams, could spell jail time in Missouri. "It's not exactly a friendly law."
Other states have taken a similar approach to Missouri when it comes smoking pot in public.
Colorado and Washington, both of which allow recreational use of marijuana, have laws against public consumption.