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Recreational Marijuana In Missouri? Legalization Campaigns Gear Up For The 2022 Ballot

A cannabis flower grows at a recreational grow facility in Illinois.
Eric Schmidt
St. Louis Public Radio
A cannabis flower grows at a recreational grow facility in Illinois. Supporters of full legalization in Missouri are lining up campaigns to try to put the issue on the ballot next year. Medical marijuana dispensaries in Missouri started rolling out in 2020.

Some industry leaders say it's time to build on the momentum of the booming medical marijuana market, but others worry the campaigns are premature.

Supporters of legalizing marijuana in Missouri are lining up campaigns to put recreational use on the ballot next year.

But with the efforts launching less than a year after the first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in the state, St. Louis cannabis industry leaders are split on whether the timing is right.

Some say there’s a lot of momentum around cannabis that should be built on — sales and the number of people getting medical marijuana cards are booming. But others worry it’s too soon, since the state is still sorting through controversy and appeals in the medical licensing process.

If campaigns can receive initial approval from the state and then gather enough signatures, voters would weigh in on legalizing recreational use of cannabis next year.

The campaigns

Earlier this month, Fair Access Missouri submitted seven versions of possible ballot language with the secretary of state’s office. All but one, regarding changes to the state’s medical program, have been rejected.

Spokesman Eric McSwain said there were formatting issues with early versions submitted.

“It’s a very particular process,” he said. “We’ve had some more recent rejections we think for similar reasons, so less about the policy itself and more about just formatting.”

Madison Walker, a spokesman with the secretary of state, said they were rejected because they included more than one amended and revised article of the constitution.

McSwain said the group will refile ballot language. Some of the previous proposals outlined that adult-use cannabis should be regulated by the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and taxed at 7.5%. Medical marijuana is currently taxed at 4%.

McSwain, who is also the chairman of the Missouri Cannabis Industry Association, said the Department of Health and Senior Services has been “ultra-conservative” in the way it’s rolled out the program by only awarding the minimum number of licenses to cannabis businesses.

He said Fair Access Missouri’s efforts would reduce barriers to entry.

“It’ll bring adult use to Missouri without license caps,” he said. “Practically speaking, what this means is that the average individual Missourian will be able to explore entrepreneurship.”

McSwain said Fair Access Missouri expects to finalize its ballot language by September and start gathering signatures in October. But the campaign will have competition.

The group behind the successful 2018 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, New Approach Missouri, plans to file language for full cannabis legalization as soon as this week.

Campaign manager John Payne said in an emailed statement that the initiative will include expungement measures for people with marijuana-related records.

He said that he’s grateful for the ballot initiative process but that it’s “arduous.”

“Which is why of the hundreds of petitions filed every election cycle, only a handful typically reach the ballot, and even fewer are passed into law,” he said. “Our coalition of activists, entrepreneurs, and criminal justice reform advocates looks forward to placing this important issue before voters in 2022 and winning their support, much like we were able to do in 2018 with medical marijuana.”

Several state lawmakers, including Rep. Wiley Price IV, D-St. Louis, are pursuing a legislative path to legalization.

How industry leaders are weighing in

Brennan England, executive director of the Missouri chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, worries that groups are moving too fast on campaigns for full legalization.

“Once the race starts, everyone feels like they have to start running,” he said.

England has been weighing in as a consultant to groups working on ballot initiatives, and he said there are two big questions that anyone pursuing cannabis legalization needs to answer.

“How have you lowered the barrier to entry in general, but also specifically for minorities, and what are you doing to get people out of jail and repair their lives?” he said. “And if those pieces aren’t clearly defined, then I would rather stay out of it than get in it. Because sometimes no move is a move.”

Brennan worries that early efforts are too focused on the monetary gain to be made. With growing political and social support for decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level, England said corporate interests are rushing to get ready for national cannabis trade.

“The gauge right now, it's not for the consumer, it's for the corporation,” he said.

But Abrahama Keys, executive director of the Greater St. Louis chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, said the industry should “strike while the iron is hot.”

Before she was elected in 2020, her organization worked closely with New Approach Missouri to mobilize voters to pass medical marijuana. But this time around, she said the group won’t endorse a campaign.

“With there being so many more initiatives coming out, one of the things that I really did want to do was provide that unbiased, impartial, kind of viewing for the public,” she said. “Because honestly, in the cannabis community, there's a lot of skepticism behind a lot of the groups.”

Keys said that to be successful, campaigns should prioritize “purposeful inclusion and accessibility,” meaning they should think about how to make prices more approachable and reduce barriers for minorities to become involved at the business level.

“People want access to cannabis, they want access to medicine, they want access to information,” she said. “They want access to the industry in general.”

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Corinne Ruff joined St. Louis Public Radio as the economic development reporter in April, 2019. She grew up among the cornfields in Northern Illinois and later earned degrees in Journalism and French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has since reported at the international, national and local level on business, education and social justice issues.
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