About two dozen Missourians testified Tuesday in support of a bill legalizing recreational marijuana use in Missouri, with many criticizing Legal Missouri 2022's ballot initiative.
Supporting testimonies came from all across the state, with significant rural representation. Missourians raced through their prepared statements after the committee limited each to two minutes.
Multiple witnesses said Legal Missouri's proposed ballot measure would tie lawmakers' hands and lead to monopolization of the marijuana industry. Many also pointed to flaws in the state's medical marijuana program, which was similarly rolled out via ballot petition in 2020, as reason to move forward with legalization in the Legislature instead.
HB 2704, sponsored by Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Defiance, would remove marijuana and THC from the state's controlled substances list, legalizing recreational use for Missourians 21 and older. Missourians charged with or convicted of a "nonviolent marijuana- related offense" could petition the court to clear their records.
Legalization is "coming no matter what," Hicks said, "but I'd like for us to be able to control that."
Gov. Mike Parson took a similar position in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio in December, favoring the legislative route over a ballot initiative that he said would "probably" pass.
The initiative petition organized by Legal Missouri 2022 needs about 170,000 signatures in six of Missouri's eight congressional districts to be inked into the ballot in November. The organization has until May 3 to collect those signatures.
"We're representing the people that are signing these initiative petitions," Hicks said. "But let's be honest here, sometimes they don't even know what they're signing."
Although she noted her support of the legislative approach to legalization, Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, D-Kansas City, responded to Hicks' criticism of initiative petition efforts.
"Initiative petitions happen because the Legislature isn't paying attention to something that's important to the constituency," she said.
One key difference between the proposed legislation and the ballot petition involves how best to address past marijuana-related charges.
Legal Missouri 2022's ballot petition proposes "automatic expungement," while Hicks' bill would require Missourians to petition the courts to remove their charges, a lengthier and more costly process.
Hicks also mentioned alternatives to the wording in his bill: The governor could grant clemency, or the state could run a computer program to automatically expunge those criminal records, for example.
The impact of heavy-handed marijuana- related offenses was on full display during the hearing. Eric McCauley was released from prison last year after serving 13 years on federal charges related to marijuana found in his Columbia apartment. He testified "in support of all of those still doing time for cannabis."
McCauley said the sentence caused him to miss the majority of his son's life.
"I was gone from kindergarten until his senior year. It's a long time," McCauley said. "And he still turned out alright, because his father really isn't a bad guy and still helped to parent him from prison."
Minorities are especially affected by strict marijuana laws. Although Black and white Americans use marijuana at about the same rate, Black people are arrested nearly four times more than white people nationally, according to ACLU data.
Brennan England, state director of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, testified on the subject of impacted minorities, also arguing that an ineffective Legislature has driven ballot petition efforts. England supported the bill.
"There are not many Black people, not many brown people in this room," England said. "But if you look in jails, obviously there are a lot for this crime."
Current and former law enforcement officers also testified on the bill.
Christopher Hammann, police chief of New Haven, spoke in support. He said he doesn't expect to see a spike in driving under the influence of marijuana with legalization.
Hammann said the legislation could even help ongoing staffing issues for police departments by easing the complications of enforcing current marijuana laws.
If legalized under Hicks' bill, the recreational marijuana business could bring in millions for the state's general revenue and create hundreds of jobs as early as the 2023 fiscal year, estimates from the committee on legislative research show.
Taxes on marijuana sales would not exceed 12 percent, according to the bill, though Hicks said Tuesday he'd be open to lowering that cap. Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O'Fallon, advocated for lower taxes on marijuana sales out of concern high dispensary prices would drive consumers to buy illegitimate, potentially unsafe product off the street.
Numerous testimonies mentioned dispensary prices are already steep, and a high tax on Missouri's recreational sales would only worsen that trend and hurt low-income consumers. Renters, unable to grow cannabis at home, would also be left at a disadvantage under the legislation.
Revenue from marijuana sales would partially go toward the implementation of the program, including the creation of a "Cannabis Enforcement Authority" under the state's Department of Agriculture.
The remaining revenue would go to teachers' salaries, first responders' pensions and the Missouri Veterans Commission, the bill's summary reads.
Missouri's medical marijuana business has already proved fruitful. Since the program was implemented statewide in October 2020, dispensaries have raked in more than $268 million, according to data from the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Per Amendment 2, which Missouri voters passed with a comfortable margin in November 2018, medical marijuana sales are taxed at 4 percent, with revenue funneled toward veterans' services.
Concerns of the opposition
Many of those who testified against Hicks' bill took issue with specific items relating to regulation, rather than the idea of legalization as a whole.
Throughout the hearing, Hicks emphasized his openness to altering the bill to accommodate concerns raised.
Natalie Brown, director of operations for MoCann Testing, raised alarms about the bill's lack of stringent testing requirements.
"I can't advocate enough for how important testing is," Brown said, "and I don't see any mandatory requirements outlined in this bill, as written today."
Regulations on licensing and seed to sale tracking were also brought into the conversation. The former has already seen fierce debate since the medical marijuana program forced businesses to race for a limited quantity of licenses.
Brooke Foster, CEO of medical cannabis company Show Me Alternatives, joined Brown in presenting a diplomatic take in opposition.
"I think this bill has merit, but it definitely needs help," Foster said. "Let's tweak it. Let's make it right, because today it's not right."
The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.