Recreational marijuana is on Missouri's ballot in November. Critics say to read the fine print
Critics of the Legal Missouri amendment say it furthers the mistakes of the state’s medical marijuana market and will continue to push out minority growers and small businesses.
Missouri voters will have the chance to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older in November. If the constitutional amendment, called Legal Missouri (Amendment 3 on the ballot), is approved, Missouri will become the 20th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
Legal Missouri projects that the state will earn annual revenue of more than $40 million through a 6% sales tax. An optional 3% local sales tax could generate at least another $13.8 million.
Rob Sullivan, co-owner of Fresh.green dispensary in Waldo and Lee’s Summit, worked on the campaign, which is backed by members of and lobbyists for the medical marijuana industry, and helped draft the amendment. He said Legal Missouri used the 2018 medical marijuana legislation to draft the ballot initiative.
“With some experience of having the medical market going when we were doing this, we basically redrafted it,” Sullivan said. “It’s pretty close to the medical one. There’s just some differences and things that we learned.”
Those differences include expungement of nonviolent convictions involving three pounds or less of marijuana and adding micro-licenses for smaller growers.
Revenue from the sales tax would cover some of the cost of processing expungements. Veterans, drug addiction treatment and the state’s public defender system will also get funds from the taxes generated by recreational marijuana.
Concerns over licensing
Critics of Legal Missouri are alarmed that the amendment was based on the 2018 medical marijuana legislation. The Department of Health and Senior Services, which runs the state’s medical marijuana program, has been accused of running a vague application process with irregularities in scoring.
Missouri capped licenses for those processing, growing and selling cannabis on the medical market at 338. Many critics say that contributed to inequalities in the market, shutting out minorities and encouraging monopolies.
Under Amendment 3, medical license holders would be first in line for recreational licenses. New licenses would be distributed through a lottery process.
Ryan Chorice, general manager of The Hub Smoke Shops, said the chain put in five applications to sell medical marijuana. All of them were denied, even though it’s an established business with locations across the metro. He worries that Legal Missouri will shut out most applicants again.
“In this industry, the No. 1 thing we all like is a nice selection,” Chorice said. “A lot of what we’ve seen with the current medical model, and kind of what it looks like they've been pushing with the one they currently have up to bill, seems like they’re just more restrictive than what you would want to see for the state to prosper or flourish.”
Christina Thompson, co-founder of ShowMe Canna-Freedom, said the licensing structure will cause artificial scarcity, driving up prices. She’s also wary of the microbusiness licenses, which restrict licensees to no more than 250 marijuana plants and allow them to compete only with other microbusinesses.
Regular licensees can own up to 10% of the total number of licenses available, which concerns Thompson.
“Microbusinesses are basically going to be segregated into their own little sphere of existence where their supply and demand is microscopic,” Thompson said. “That's not fair — there's no room for expansion. It means that they're never going to become competitive. They're not allowed to sell any strains that they come up with on the large commercial market.”
But Sullivan said the microbusiness licenses are intended to make the market more equitable, reducing the barrier for entry that would exist for a full size dispensary.
“The only restriction in the micro licenses is that they buy and deal with each other, which is, I think, necessary to protect them from being pushed out by big business,” Sullivan said. “A micro business is going to find it hard to compete with [a multi-million dollar dispensary] in terms of pricing and cost.”
Amendment 3 allows for expungement of convictions for possessing three pounds or less of marijuana. Those convicted of violent offenses, dealing to a minor or driving while under the influence are not eligible.
Mark Powell, co-founder of ShowMe Canna-Freedom, said he was alarmed that Legal Missouri allows a judge to prevent an expungement with “good cause for denial.”
“Expungement is great,” Powell said. “We're for expungement, but Legal Missouri doesn't explain what ‘cause’ means in their initiative. If the judge doesn't like you, the way you're presenting yourself, whatever reason, the judge can deny you.”
Public use of cannabis and driving under the influence is still against the law in Missouri; depending on the amount, it could amount to a felony.
“If you are caught in public smoking a joint or blunt, you can still be fined and it goes on your record,” Powell said. “If you are in possession of three ounces or more it becomes an automatic felony. So yeah, expungement is not automatically guaranteed.”
Leveling the market
Chorice said many customers have asked him and his staff about Legal Missouri. He tells customers to be wary of voting “yes” just because they support recreational use.
Legal Missouri “didn't seem like there was a lot of extra restrictions being let down. It seemed like it was kind of like the same – just more money and more resources going to the ones that are already winning. That's kind of what we've seen out of the past couple years.”
He pointed to states like Oklahoma, which started its medical marijuana program at the same time as Missouri but has more licenses – with more shops and better price points. If Missouri’s recreational bill resembles its medical one, Chorice is convinced illegal sales will continue.
“If people still feel like there's too many hoops to jump through to get their product, it's going to keep a gray and a black market open,” Chorice said. “We just want fair accessibility. With that you're going to get more people using it, more people wanting to get involved in the program and more taxable revenue to the state.”
Chorice encouraged voters to read the entirety of the amendment before deciding how to vote. He said leveling the playing field and creating a safe market are his most important considerations — and he doesn’t see those in Amendment 3.
“People are very excited to get this through,” he said. “So they're willing to sign things that they're not specifically reading like they should be. We still stress being patient to get the right foundation built for it.”
Sullivan, however, said people should take a shot at recreational usage now while it’s up for a vote. He said any details or mistakes can be worked out after Legal Missouri passes.
“If you think that marijuana should be legalized, then you should vote 'yes' on the initiative because it's the only choice to legalize adult use,” he said.
Powell and Thompson disagree. For them, further legalization only matters if it makes the market open to everybody.
“People deserve to have the ability to enter this market,” Thompson said. “People deserve to have an equal shot at it. If you fail, you fail, but you still deserve to have an equal shot.”