“Do we still have time? Yes. I’ve seen bills sail through the process in a week. It really comes down to whether we have the will to tackle it.”

By Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent

With the end of the legislative session only weeks away, and organizers of an initiative petition campaign sounding the alarm about an even more pressing deadline, dueling efforts to legalize marijuana in Missouri face uncertain fates.

In the legislature, GOP state Rep. Ron Hicks is sponsoring a bill to legalize possession and use of marijuana for individuals 21 and older.

But while it received a committee hearing in early March, it took nearly a month to get a vote—and when it did, a pair of amendments were added that the bill’s supporters labeled poison pills.

“Do we still have time? Yes,” said Hicks, noting the legislature will adjourn at 6 PM on May 13. “I’ve seen bills sail through the process in a week. It really comes down to whether we have the will to tackle it.”

Meanwhile, backers of a proposal to place the marijuana legalization issue on the statewide ballot this year are begging for help to gather enough signatures before a May 8 deadline.

In an industry newsletter, first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the call went out for medical marijuana businesses to donate money and staff to the effort—with a reminder that the proposal would give them first dibs on the lucrative new recreational marijuana licenses.

“We have already collected and processed over 170,000 signatures but still need to collect at least that many more in the remaining weeks to ensure we have cushion and certainty we’re on the ballot,” the newsletter said.

Push for signatures

Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 creating the medical marijuana program.

State regulators began setting up the new industry soon after, initially issuing 338 licenses to sell, grow and process marijuana—the minimum required in the constitutional amendment.

They argued the caps would help ensure oversupply didn’t fuel a black market. And last week the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association noted Missouri has more than three times the number of dispensaries as Illinois, which has twice Missouri’s population and both medical and recreational programs.

But critics of the program say the caps have created a monopoly in the state and have created the appearance of corruption. Those concerns were further stoked by rumblings of an FBI public corruption investigation and revelations of problems with the scoring process set up to decide who received a license.

Last year, the medical marijuana industry began the process of putting another constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot to legalize recreational marijuana.

Like the 2018 measure, Legal Missouri 2022 would allow the state to continue capping licenses while ensuring current medical marijuana license holders get the initial batch of recreational licenses.

To make the ballot, the campaign must collect signatures from at least 8 percent of voters in six of the state’s eight congressional districts. This year, that would mean 170,000 signatures, though successful campaigns historically turn in a much higher total to offset signatures being invalidated.

The industry newsletter said the campaign is aiming to turn in 300,000 signatures before the May 8 deadline.

One of the biggest hurdles the effort has faced has been a shortage of people to collect signatures around the state. In the newsletter, medical marijuana businesses were urged to devote full-time employees to signature gathering duties to ensure the measure makes the ballot.

Asked last week about the lack of signature gatherers, the campaign’s spokesman declined to delve into specifics, saying only that “our singular focus remains making sure that Missourians have the opportunity to make our state the 20th to authorize the use, taxation and regulation of marijuana for adult use.”

Meanwhile, Missouri’s medical marijuana industry is pouring money into the campaign.

Since the beginning of April, Legal Missouri 2022 has received more than $1.4 million from industry sources.

The Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association says medical marijuana sales topped $30 million in March, for the first time approaching $1 million a day.

‘Free-market system’

Hicks has framed his proposal as a free-market alternative to the Legal Missouri 2022 effort.

Among a litany provisions in the legislation, Hicks’ proposal initially didn’t limit the number of licenses the state would issue to grow and sell marijuana.

“Why would we cap business licenses on this industry when you have no other industry?” Hicks said. “We don’t do it for alcohol. You can open a liquor store and I can open the store, and if your business plan is better and your prices are better and your customer service is better, you’re gonna outdo me and my doors will eventually close. That’s how it’s supposed to work in America. That’s the free-market system.”

But Hicks’ bill was adamantly opposed by Missouri’s medical marijuana industry, and the chairman of the House committee the bill was assigned to added an amendment to limit the number of licenses to the number of current medical marijuana permits.

Through negotiation, the amendment was altered to allow twice as many business licenses as are currently issued, but Hicks still doesn’t like it.

“I want that amendment off the bill,” Hicks said.

Another amendment also was added in committee that would exclude transgender women from access to no-interest loans for women- and minority-owned cannabis businesses, though the amendment’s sponsor has said he’d remove it if it could impact the bill’s chances of success.

But even if the transgender amendment is removed, backers of Hicks’ bill argue it has already slowed down the legislation’s progress.

“We do not take a position on transgender issues and see this scheme as designed to eat up valuable time on the legislative calendar as the session moves to its close in mid-May,” said Tim Gilio, founder of the Missouri Marijuana Legalization Movement.

Some of his colleagues may have heartburn about the idea of legalizing marijuana use, Hicks said, but it is going to happen eventually—with or without lawmakers.

“We need to act first,” he said. “It’s time that we started listening to the people. We’ve ignored them long enough, and they just turn to the initiative petition process. We don’t like that, but all they are doing is pointing out that they can go around us when we don’t listen. So it’s time we listen.”

This story was first published by Missouri Independent.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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