9 marijuana measures on ballot in U.S. Why not Missouri? | St. Louis Public Radio

9 marijuana measures on ballot in U.S. Why not Missouri?

Nov 2, 2016

Hemp growing in a clone room at BeLeaf's facility in Earth City must contain less than .03 percent THC under Missouri law.
Credit File photo | Joseph Leahy | St. Louis Public Radio

Efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Missouri failed to pass the state legislature last session or qualify for the ballot next week, but nine pot-related measures are up for votes in other states on Election Day.  As laws and public opinion toward the cannabis plant continue shifting nationwide, the Show Me State is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Since last year, Missouri law has allowed for limited production of non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) oil extracted from hemp plants to treat children with intractable epilepsy. Missouri’s law is so restrictive that only three companies are licensed to operate in the state under regulations.

BeLeaf's flowering room is designed for expanding production with extra space and additional high-intensity lights in the event Missouri's laws change to allow medical marijuana.
Credit Joseph Leahy | St. Louis Public Radio

One of them is tucked away in an industrial park in Earth City. BeLeaf serves about two dozen children but is banking on state statutes eventually changing to include more medical conditions and allow more psychoactive compounds in the extract, said co-founder John Curtis.

“This particular facility is designed to be very adaptable to these changes. So, this facility is laid out to do more processing,” he said, explaining why BeLeaf’s spacious flowering room has installed twice as many high-intensity grow lights than the company needs for current production levels.

According to New Approach Missouri, one of the groups that failed to get a medical marijuana proposal on the ballot this year, as many as 150,000 Missourians have medical conditions that could qualify for the drug if laws were changed.

"I guess I'm just a little disillusioned with how difficult it is to move something forward, even if it is a good bill ..." — Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron

But, as more states continue to expand legal uses for marijuana, similar efforts in Missouri have floundered. Nearly half of all states now permit some form of medical marijuana, including Illinois, and five states, including California, will vote Tuesday on measures that would allow for recreational marijuana use.

Republican State Rep. Jim Neely, a geriatric physician in northwest Missouri, sponsored legislation last session to allow medical marijuana for terminally ill patients.

Despite bi-partisan support for his bill, Neely said the stigma associated with marijuana as a drug is still too toxic for some Missouri lawmakers.

“I guess I’m just a little disillusioned with how difficult it is to move something forward, even if it is a good bill,” he said.

Even measures to legalize industrial hemp in Missouri, which has virtually zero narcotic properties, have floundered because of its association with drugs.  State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, sponsored a bill this year that would allow for farmers to grow hemp for a variety of uses including paper, rope and textiles.

“I like to refer to this as the worst case of mistaken identity in American domestic, economic and drug policy,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with [state] senators who don’t want to be roped into a category of people that are for hemp or cannabis legalization because of the negative connotation that it has related to narcotics.”

The state was once one of the major hemp growers in the country; the federal government even subsidized Missouri hemp farmers for the Navy during WWII, evinced in this film from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

One of the most influential opponents of cannabis legislation among lawmakers is the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. According to President Amy Fite, that’s largely because the Drug Enforcement Agency still groups marijuana in the same class of drugs as heroin, meth and LSD.

“We cannot basically go around and make something legal that is illegal at the federal level,” she said.

Of course, that’s exactly what other states are doing, as the DEA’s “non-enforcement” policy has allowed space for them to adopt new laws to regulate marijuana over the past few years.

Given Missouri’s political deadlock on the issue, some say the best chance for passing is letting voters decide. John Payne, political director for New Approach Missouri, said he’s confident a medical marijuana proposal could pass if the decision was up to Missouri voters.  

“It’s going to have to be the initiative process that makes this happen because legislators would find it very difficult to come out against the prosecutor's association.”

Last month, a Pew Research poll found 57 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana. Other surveys show many of the initiatives on state ballots across the country will pass on Tuesday.

That would mean, for the first time in generations, Missouri’s laws regarding cannabis will be in the minority of the United States.

Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter: @joemikeleahy