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Battlelines drawn over recreational marijuana

by Cameron Gerber | October 27, 2022 at 4:03 a.m.

Four years after enacting the state's medical marijuana program, voters will consider a similar question for recreational marijuana on Election Day -- and there are plenty of voices on both sides of the issue vying for their attention.

Labeled Amendment 3 on the November ballot, the constitutional change would legalize marijuana use, manufacturing and sale for adults over the age of 21 in Missouri. The measure would also allow those with non-violent marijuana-related convictions to petition for release, parole and probation, and the expungement of their criminal records.

The language would also enact a 6 percent state tax on marijuana sales, with funds earmarked for expungement expenses, with the remainder split between health care for veterans, the state's public defender program and drug addiction treatment efforts. Local governments could leverage up to 3 percent in local sales taxes.

The support

The effort was spearheaded by political action committee (PAC) LegalMo22, which gathered enough signatures to be certified for the ballot by the Secretary of State's Office, the only initiative petition to make it on this election cycle. John Payne, the group's campaign manager, said upon its certification that passing the issue would be a step forward for the state.

"We are now one step away from passing Amendment 3, which will bring millions in new revenue to Missouri while allowing law enforcement to concentrate on fighting violent and serious crime," Payne said in a statement. "Amendment 3 not only will make Missouri the 20th state to legalize marijuana, it does it in the right way by automatically expunging the nonviolent criminal records of hundreds of thousands of Missourians."

The campaign has raised more than $5.5 million since it launched, according to its latest reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

The effort has garnered support from several Missouri groups, including the ACLU of Missouri. Executive Director Luz Maria Henriquez said the group remains committed to opposing laws which criminalize adult use of marijuana and supporting automatic expungement of marijuana-related offenses."

Other supporting groups include Empower Missouri and both the Missouri and Kansas City chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The push also has support from an advocate with experience in other states' push to legalize: Rick Steves, known for his documentary television series "Rick Steves' Europe" and his travel writings, has advocated for legalization campaigns since Colorado and his home state of Washington were the first in the nation to legalize recreational use a decade ago. He has worked in favor of campaigns in Missouri, Maryland, Arkansas, and North and South Dakotas this year.

Having waded deep into the language and lessons learned across multiple campaigns over the years, Steves said there had been an evolution in policy as states learned from past efforts and the effects of legalization in other places. He also compared the U.S. efforts to those in Europe, noting there was a larger focus on morality in American arguments against legalization and that states have had an easier time regulating the business side of a legal industry while other countries are still struggling to find a balance.

Steves, who also chairs NORML, said individual states deciding to legalize recreational use could prove a bellwether to the federal government, comparing the movement to the end of the U.S. prohibition on alcohol a century ago. He said marijuana use was unlikely to increase with legalization as those who wanted to use it already do; rather than using resources to prosecute and punish users, he said it was more practical to eliminate an illicit trade while legitimizing that revenue.

"Marijuana use is here already; it's not going to be wished away," Steves said. "This isn't necessarily about being pro-marijuana. I'm pro-civil liberties and support treating it as a health and education challenge rather than a criminal one. Marijuana is a drug, it can be abused, and it should be regulated rather than criminalized."

The opposition

Not everyone is on board with the Amendment 3 effort, however -- and the opposition doesn't necessarily fall along party lines, either.

Save Our State, an organized effort to oppose the ballot measure, is made up of a coalition of organizations including the Missouri Catholic Conference, Missouri Baptist Convention, Missouri Hospital Association, Missouri Narcotics Officers Association and Missouri State Medical Association.

The group has argued the amendment was bankrolled by the existing medical marijuana industry, which would get first dibs on recreational licenses under the amendment. It also said a lottery system for license awards and the ability for an entity to run multiple facilities favored existing marijuana businesses. It also states the language is vague and complicated, pointing to the 39 pages written up for inclusion in the state constitution. Sections set forth fines, the group says, without attributing the ability to impose them to a specific state entity, while avoiding a definition for when a user is "under the influence" rendered enforcement of marijuana laws "impossible," the group said.

They also said the language would triple the amount customers could purchase and would drop laws requiring majority owners to be Missouri residents, amid other potentially detrimental changes.

Save Our State Chairman Scott Dieckhaus told the News Tribune the group represented a broad array of perspectives united by the belief that Amendment 3 was flawed.

"Once items are put into the Constitution, errors or problems that come up with the implementation of programs are seldom readdressed," Dieckhaus said. "It is very difficult and costly to fix them. It will take millions and millions of dollars from an interested party to put back on the ballot to come back and fix the problems they want to curb. The more sensible solution would be to pass policy via statutory change, so that if any issues did pop up they could be remedied by the legislature or through a much less expensive and complicated process."

He said that while some groups aligned with the opposition campaign may support legalization through the Legislature and expungement, he said the coalition did not have a singular vision on those issues.

The Missouri Democratic Party, meanwhile, voiced its support for both legalization and expungement but opposed the language presented in Amendment 3 for similar reasons.

"As written, Amendment 3 may negatively impact minorities, people of color and low-income earning Missourians. Democrats have concerns about the expungement provisions laid out in the amendment, as well as making it difficult for those who do not currently have a license to enter the industry," the party's State Committee recommendation on the issue read.

Missouri Sheriffs United, a legislative advocacy group representing the state's sheriffs, on Wednesday released a statement opposing the measure for safety and law enforcement concerns. The group said the language would stop courts from prohibiting marijuana use for those working their way through drug or family court programs, strips employers' ability to prohibit marijuana use by employees, and removes THC limits for motor vehicle use or possession of a firearm.

"Amendment 3 contains more than thirty pages of constitutionally created rights, with several sections creating dangerous threats to our citizens," the release states. "Amendment 3 goes far beyond legalizing recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years of age and older."

Election Day is Nov. 8. The amendment requires a simple majority to pass.

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