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COVID-19 Puts An End To Campaign To Legalize Recreational Marijuana In Missouri, For Now

Cannabis plants grow under orange sodium lights in a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Oakland, California. Missouri has begun accepting application fees for potential license-holders of such facilities.

Unable to gather petition signatures for a statewide vote in November, organizers call off effort to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana and expunge low-level convictions.

The campaign to put recreational marijuana on the 2020 Missouri ballot is over. Organizers with Missourians for a New Approach said COVID-19 is to blame.
Stay-at-home orders prevented the grassroots effort from gathering the petition signatures it needed for a statewide vote in November. The proposed amendment would have legalized adult-use recreational marijuana and expunged low-level marijuana convictions. 

A combination of social distancing and business closures led to a plunge in foot traffic, which a tight deadline for gathering signatures cannot afford.

The group had three months to gather over 170,000 signatures and had just passed the halfway mark when the pandemic hit. The deadline to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot was May 3. 

“We tried to come up with ways that we might be able to make it work,” said John Payne, the campaign manager for the initiative. “But ultimately, there was just nowhere you could possibly go to gather signatures at this point.”

In addition, Payne said it wasn’t “socially responsible” to send almost 100 petitioners around the state to collect signatures, because they could help spread the coronavirus. 

Despite most petition-gatherers being volunteers, putting an initiative on the ballot is not a cheap process, Payne said.

The effort cost $2.2 million. In comparison, to put medical marijuana on the Missouri ballot in 2018 cost $1.4 million, Payne said. 

“Hypothetically speaking, if you just had a drop-off of half of the locations that you would normally have, you would probably need something like $5 million to get it done.”

That is money Missourians for a New Approach did not have.

So, the group turned to alternative methods. Payne said the organization tried to get Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to move the date when signatures would be due, but that was a dead end. Then, Payne tried to see if online signatures would work, but again, a dead end. There is a statute in Missouri law that doesn’t allow digital signatures to be gathered.

The organization planned for 2020 because it is a presidential election year.

“The people that are the biggest group of people that turn out for a presidential election that really don't turn out at other elections are younger voters,” Payne said.

And, Payne said, the biggest divider on legalizing marijuana is not income level or party, but age. 

Calling off the campaign was a kick in the teeth, he said, because he believes the support is out there. In 2018, the medical marijuana amendment that passed had a 65% approval rate from voters. 

“We got more votes than [Sen.] Josh Hawley,” Payne said.

After Illinois passed recreational marijuana in 2019, the Metro East dispensary in Collinsville has seen millions of dollars in profits and high turnouts, including people from Missouri. In the first month of legal use alone, Illinois sold $40 million of recreational marijuana. 

Now, Payne said he is setting his sights on 2022 and plans to secure funding over the summer for the campaign. He said Missourians for a New Approach plans to file for the initiative again right after the 2020 election wraps up.

Then the group will have a full year to gather signatures, rather than three months, which Payne said also cuts down the cost.

Funding for the initiative comes from drug policy reform groups, including the New Approach PAC, individuals and marijuana businesses in other states.

“It's just not feasible at the moment to actually put it before voters, but the support is there,” Payne said. “So we will definitely be back.”

Editor’s note: Some quotes and information in this story were from a Facebook Live interview between St. Louis Public Radio’s Lindsay Toler and John Payne.

Follow Kayla on Twitter:  @_kayladrake.

Send questions and comments about this story to  feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Kayla Drake
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