“We strongly believe in the rights of Missouri voters to directly bring about good public policy through a process that has served the state well for decades.”

By Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent

A handful of Republican lawmakers lashed out at the state’s medical marijuana industry Thursday, lobbing accusations of corruption into a Missouri House debate over whether to make it harder to amend the state’s Constitution.

On a mostly party-line 98-53 vote, the Missouri House signed off on legislation Thursday that would require a two-thirds vote of the people to amend the state Constitution. Currently, it takes a simple majority vote.

It would also increase the number of signatures required to put a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot in the first place.

The legislation still has to win passage in the Missouri Senate, and would then be placed on either the August or November ballot later this year for voter approval.

But the most contentious discussion of this week’s debate didn’t focus on either of the main provisions of the bill. Instead, it surrounded a change that would delay the proposal’s implementation until January 2023.

Originally, the bill went into effect 30 days after winning approval from the voters.

Republican state Rep. Adam Schwadron of St. Charles said he changed the implementation date at the request of those seeking to place a recreational marijuana amendment on the ballot this November.

“It was some people who are currently working on recreational marijuana,” Schwardron said of who approached him about making the change.

The revelation frustrated Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, who serves as chairman of the House oversight committee that spent much of 2020 investigating irregularities in Missouri’s medical marijuana program.

“There was corruption in the system,” Taylor said, pointing to irregularities in the scoring process for issuing licenses to grow and sell marijuana.

Taylor argued the initiative petition seeking to legalize recreational marijuana would ensure those who already have licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana receive the more lucrative recreational licenses.

“They will go to those who currently have licenses,” he said, “who are part of a corrupt system that has been created in the state.”

State Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, criticized the state’s 2018 decision to cap the number of licenses it would award, saying Missouri should have taken a more free-market approach and issued licenses to any business that met the criteria to operate.

Baker said he has been told that approach to licensing would have resulted in “pot on every street corner.”

“If I had the choice between pot on every corner and government corruption, you know what I’m going to take?” he said. “Pot on every corner. Because the long-lasting effect of government corruption are far worse.”

Both state regulators and industry leaders have long denied any wrongdoing in the marijuana licensing process.

They point out that Missouri issued far more licenses than most states—85 manufacturing facilities, 58 cultivation facilities and 202 dispensaries, according to state data—and that by capping licenses the state could ensure oversupply doesn’t fuel a black market.

But concerns about the program persist, fueled by rumblings of an FBI public corruption investigation and revelations during successful appeals of problems with the application scoring process.

John Payne, campaign manager for Legal Missouri 2022, the committee gathering signatures to place a proposed recreational marijuana measure on the November 8 ballot, said in an email to The Independent that his group is “actively monitoring various pieces of legislation in the Missouri Capitol that seek to upend the initiative petition process.

“We strongly believe in the rights of Missouri voters to directly bring about good public policy through a process that has served the state well for decades,” Payne said.

‘Goal posts moved’

The House first debated the proposed changes to the initiative petition process on Monday, with lawmakers voting down an effort by Taylor to return the implementation date of the two-thirds majority requirement to 30 days after voter approval.

By Wednesday, lobbyists Steve Tilley and Thomas Robbins—who represent both the Legal Missouri 2022 and the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association—were meeting with lawmakers about the implementation date.

On Thursday, with the House set to send the bill to the Senate, lawmakers in support of the change spoke up in its defense.

“It wasn’t because of a special interest group,” said state Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial and chairman of the House elections committee.

He supported the change, Shaul said, because he didn’t think it would be fair to change the rules in the middle of the process. Various initiative petitions are already gathering signatures, he said, and raising the bar for voter approval now would be unfair and likely lead to lawsuits.

“I never like to have the goal posts moved on me,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

State Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre and the legislation’s sponsor, noted that any change in the effective date would only matter if lawmakers pass the bill and Gov. Mike Parson (R) decides to place the question on the August primary ballot.

“If this is on the November ballot,” he said, “it really wouldn’t do anything. By keeping the effective date in January, we run much less risk of ending up in court.”

Legislative scrutiny

The recreational marijuana constitutional amendment supported by Legal Missouri would allow current medical marijuana business licensees to have the first shot at the new licenses.

That dynamic has rekindled questions that have swirled about how the state doled out licenses for medical marijuana businesses in the first place.

Medical marijuana instantly became big business in Missouri after voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing it in 2018, and competition for licenses became fierce when the state capped the number it would issue.

According to the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), which oversees the medical marijuana program, there were initially 857 appeals filed with the administrative hearing commission over rejected medical marijuana licenses, with 529 still pending.

The Missouri House launched an investigation into the licensing process in early 2020, fueled by widespread reports of irregularities in how license applications were scored and allegations that conflicts of interest within DHSS and a private company hired to score applications may have tainted the process.

Last month, the state granted a cultivation license to a previously-denied company after a state’s administrative hearing commission ruling that portrayed Missouri’s scoring system as a rushed process informed by “intentionally vague guidance” with no opportunities to review the work for problems.

It was the second time scoring issues resulted in the state issuing a license to a denied applicant.

Then last week, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the state to turn over medical marijuana application information to anyone who is appealing a denied license. The state has long argued the information had to be kept confidential.

The ruling stemmed from litigation filed by Kings Garden Midwest, which was denied licenses for both of its applications to grow medical marijuana. As part of the company’s appeal, it requested unredacted, complete copies of approved applications to prove its belief that the company’s answers were similar to those who had been granted licenses.

The supreme court’s ruling opens an avenue for hundreds of denied licensees with pending appeals to gain access to information that has been shrouded in secrecy.

On Thursday, state Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, said he shares the concerns about the implementation date of the initiative petition proposal, especially because it was being pushed by marijuana interests.

With numerous other bills making changes to the initiative petition process in the legislative pipeline, Eggleston said he will continue to raise the issue of the implementation date.

“I hope,” he said, “we can have a deeper discussion.”

This story was first published by Missouri Independent.

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Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.

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