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May 09, 2022
In Missouri, corporations and multi-state actors are clamoring to grab a share of the state’s future recreational cannabis market. In an OZY exclusive, Seth Ferranti asks in today’s Daily Dose: Who profits from recreational cannabis?
– with reporting by Seth Ferranti, St. Louis, Missouri
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In November 2018, Missouri became the 32nd U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana when residents voted for the measure by ballot, in an effort spearheaded by political action committee New Approach Missouri. As legalization now sweeps the nation, Missouri is looking to go recreational in 2022. Legal Mo 22, a group representing large out-of-state operators who led the 2018 ballot initiative, have gathered signatures to put recreational marijuana up for a vote this fall.
But a grassroots group of Missouri citizens have leveled corruption accusations against Legal Mo 22 and have enlisted Missouri Republican Rep. Ron Hicks to pass legislation for legalization in advance of the ballot measure. Activists have been testifying at the capitol in Jefferson City to keep Legal Mo 22—whose agenda they say is corporate—from monopolizing Missouri’s recreational market. And, despite wide support for the ballot initiative, some Missourians are adamant that it is not right for their state.
“Missouri cannabis advocates are divided by two rivaling adult-use legalization proposals,” Joani Harshman, of the Harshman Law Firm in Kansas City specializing in cannabis law, told OZY. “The competition of these two legalization efforts is going to be an intense nail biter.”
Legal Mo 22 — or the Cannabis Freedom Act?
The Cannabis Freedom Act, or HB2704, was introduced to the Missouri House in February by Rep. Hicks, and would remove cannabis from the state’s listing of Criminal Controlled Substance Offenses. It would also expunge and vacate prior marijuana convictions and would place no limits on marijuana possession or on the number of commercial cannabis licenses issued in the state. Activists, lawyers, lobbyists and people formerly imprisoned on cannabis charges have frequented the capital to testify in support of the bill.
In April, the legislature’s Public Safety Committee narrowly passed the Cannabis Freedom Act. This followed a major overhaul of the bill, with changes that included a 10-year wait to expunge marijuana convictions and a cap on the number of commercial licenses to fewer than 700. This new version of the bill does not include protections against cannabis asset forfeiture, a policy that permits law enforcement to seize motor vehicles and other property in conjunction with cannabis arrests.
In contrast to the Cannabis Freedom Act, Legal Mo 22 would leave cannabis on the list of Criminal Controlled Substance Offenses and would limit possession to 3 ounces or less. Expungement of convictions would apply only to cases involving less than 3 pounds. And notably, the 378 current medical marijuana license-holders would be first in line to receive permits for recreational sales. The Department of Health and Senior Services, which runs the medical marijuana program, would determine the cap to be issued on the number of recreational licenses. In effect, this would limit opportunity for new applicants to enter the cannabis market, putting current license holders in a position to corner the recreational market if and when voters pass Legal Mo 22’s constitutional amendment at the ballot in November.
“I’m working to legalize marijuana for the people of Missouri—not just the out-of-state interests and large corporations,” Rep. Ron Hicks told OZY. “My Cannabis Freedom Act sets the standard for not just ending the criminalization of marijuana, but also for ensuring that Missouri creates more opportunity for innovation and wealth creation.”
Profit is not the only issue up for debate. Also hanging in the balance are the lives and livelihoods of Missourians who have been incarcerated for crimes related to a substance that may soon be sold for recreational use. Since his release from prison last year and his reunion with his teenage son, Eric McCauley—who served 12 years of a 23-year federal sentence—has worked to free non-violent cannabis prisoners like himself. He has testified in support of the Cannabis Freedom Act.
“As someone personally affected by the war against cannabis, I’ve experienced and am still experiencing what it has done to my family, and I feel compelled to be the voice of those still serving time,” he told OZY.
Despite the opposition from former prisoners like McCauley, Legal Mo 22 advocates believe the initiative is the best course for Missouri. The proposal “has the broad, robust support of a multitude of criminal justice reform organizations,” said Alan Zagier, a spokesperson for Legal Mo 22, referencing endorsements from the NAACP, the ACLU of Missouri, and other organizations.
Tony Rothert, Director of Integrated Advocacy for the ACLU of Missouri, noted in a comment to OZY that his organization’s endorsement of Legal Mo 22 does not signal opposition to the Cannabis Freedom Act.
“We reject the false premise that this is an adversarial situation,” Rothert said. “We are not opposed to the bill [the Cannabis Freedom Act]. Both the initiative and legislative processes of making laws present substantial barriers. We support legalization and expungement.”
Dan Viets, a Missouri cannabis rights attorney, says that Legal Mo 22 “will stop most of the 20,000 arrests and prosecutions that happen each year in Missouri for marijuana. [The pushback against Legal Mo 22 exists] because some disappointed business license applicants care more about making money than stopping arrests and legalizing marijuana.”
Trade association MoCannTrade has announced that Missouri’s medicinal marijuana sales topped $30 million in March. With so much at stake, Legal Mo 22 seems to be taking no chances. The Missouri Independentreported that, since the beginning of April, the initiative has received more than $1.4 million from out-of-state industry sources, including Proper Cannabis, Good Day Farm, Flora Farms, BeLeaf, and Greenlight.
As this debate has played out, Governor Mike Parson has remained silent.
Advocates for Legal Mo 22 have already collected the required 170,000 signatures to put their initiative on the ballot. But the activists fighting for the Cannabis Freedom Act believe they are winning, and that the Missouri Legislature will approve the legislation when the bill goes to the full house before the legislature closes its current session at the end of May.
Who do you think should profit from recreational cannabis?
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