JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In a historic vote last week, the House Emerging Issues Committee passed a bill that would legalize medical marijuana in Missouri by an 11-1 vote, the largest margin any measure regarding the topic has ever received in the Missouri House of Representatives.
That vote serves as the latest reminder, along with growing public support, an approved initiative petition from New Approach Missouri, and whispers in the Capitol, that the question of medical marijuana coming to Missouri is no longer a question of if, but when.
Or maybe why is the best question to answer first. A Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of Americans support legal marijuana use in some capacity, a figure which has sharply risen from 25 percent in 1995. But Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones argues the majority of those receptive to such a proposal are more likely to be younger, Democratic or independent, while those who oppose it are usually older and vote Republican.
However, many Republicans have soured on prohibition as of late, and as detailed by this piece from the Atlantic’s Molly Ball, some Republicans feel the truly conservative choice would be to allow people to choose for themselves whether or not they wish to imbibe a substance that has slowly become destigmatized and seen by many as comparable in effect to alcohol.
Republicans in the Missouri legislature, meanwhile, seem as eager to offer legislation to legalize medical marijuana as a middle-of-the-road measure. Four of the 10 measures related to marijuana and cannabis in the House and Senate and three of six measures in the House this session come from Republican legislators.
Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, offered that aforementioned historic bill, known as the Missouri Compassionate Care Act, for this session after introducing the language last year. He said that many of the Republicans he has talked to support creating an avenue to access medical marijuana.
“I come from a fairly conservative district… and so after talking with my wife and my family about filing this bill for people to have access to it, I filed it and waited for the negative reaction I was going to get,” Hinson said. “I just started getting this overwhelmingly positive support from people that said ‘I wish my parent or a relative had been able to have access to it legally.’ “
Hinson, a paramedic, stated that his motivation for the bill came from seeing his own father suffer with chronic pain.
“He went through the VA in Columbia and he had multiple myeloma, which is basically a bone cancer, very painful,” he said. “So, as I was watching him die and he was under the influence of morphine and that, hallucinating and everything… my mom said the VA had offered [cannabis] to him to use.”
Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, has also put up legislation to make medical marijuana legal in Missouri, though it differs from Hinson’s in certain ways. Neely confessed that he still had reservations about medical marijuana, but that he believes having a genuine conversation is more important than his skepticism, and may in fact answer some questions.
“As a physician you see these conditions that you kind of wonder would marijuana help a person,” he said. “There are some benefits in various medical conditions out there, whether it’s chronic pain, illness, behavior disorders, cancer, anorexia, a multitude of conditions, neurodegenerative disorders.”
Even Neely admits that he has some issues with the specifics, and he foresees some difficulties in prescribing marijuana.
“My problem with marijuana in itself as a physician is you base things on milligrams and all. kind of moving from a clinical mindset to… different degrees of potency,” he said. “My biggest concern with medical marijuana is we’re going to have a number of people who are addicted, and they’re going to continually want to get marijuana and is that going to be an issue? As a doctor, you get tired of dealing with the people hounding you for narcotics. So is this going to be the same idea?”
Despite those problems, Neely wants to have debate on the floor, if only for further edification on the topic.
With all of this momentum and various proposals, the question of when may not elude anyone either. Many in the Capitol and around the state hope to see significant steps taken by the end of the year, either by ballot measure or
So maybe the real question is how. Just because legislators, the general public and advocacy groups seem more ready to agree that medical marijuana is a positive, that does not mean there is agreement on the specifics.
Hinson’s stated intentions with his legislation come from a desire to help people with chronic illnesses or pain, it comes with a great deal of regulation that some find unnerving. Eapen Thampy, a lobbyist for Heartland Priorities who has fought on the front lines in the fight against marijuana prohibition in Missouri, is encouraged by the increased interest in medical marijuana, but he does not believe Hinson’s bill is the answer.
“Hinson’s bill is inadequate… for a couple of reasons,” he said. “Number one, his bill goes to the ballot. Number two, it has a very restrictive set-up where you have to have $500,000 in the bank basically to apply for one of 30 licenses.”
Those licenses deal with cultivators or actual marijuana plants. While Thampy said New Approach Missouri’s IP would require a minimum of 75 licenses for cultivators, the limit proposed by Hinson’s bill means only a handful of wealthy farmers would be able to control the entire state. Last November, an Ohio ballot measure seeking to legalize and regulate marijuana failed because it gave exclusive production and cultivation rights to just 10 facilites.
“This is a state that respects and values economic freedom,” Thampy said. “It’s all about opportunity. If we’re going to have a new market, why do we want to restrict entrepreneurs and economic activity from coming to the state? Why do we want to create economic systems or market systems where only the rich get to play?
“If you pass a restrictive system like Hinson’s bill, you’re going to continue seeing young people go to Colorado, go to California where they can enter this industry.”
Thampy told a story of a visit he made to an edibles manufacturing company in Colorado Springs, Colorado that is owned and operated by eight ex-Missourians.
For Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, there are other issues at play besides just legalization or otherwise. Ellington has his own bill that would make even recreational marijuana fully legalized in Missouri and regulated similarly to alcohol, but the problem for Ellington stems from his belief that Republicans have not made inroads on some of the other underlying issues that come with legislation regarding cannabis, especially the people sent to jail for marijuana offenses.
“It would be encouraging… if the Republican party was willing to work on anything related to non-violent expungement or they were willing to work on anything retroactively on marijuana convictions or anything like that, but they’re not,” he said.
He also has some reservations, as Thampy does, with the economic side of things. He questions when Republicans state they are pushing their bills for purely medical reasons because many of the bills put restrictions on who can grow and sell or otherwise distribute cannabis and effectively shrink the market.
“I do think the Republican Party is on board now, but I think it’s solely about the amount of revenue it would bring to the state,” he said. “In one of the bills, you can see certain carve-outs for industries that would benefit. Not everyone would be able to benefit by growing themselves.
“For the last couple of years, we had medical marijuana bills in the House. We’ve seen very slow movement on any of those pieces of legislation. A year ago, we had the CBD oil that came through committee. There was a lot of misinformation that came out from some of my colleagues on the committee. We ended up passing that for medical benefits, but I don’t think the actual sentiment is pure.”
Still, he says that progress is progress and that he hopes the legislature does pass a version of legislation that would decriminalize marijuana, either medical or recreational.
Regardless of his final intent or the eventual impact, Hinson’s bill, a bill that might answer a deeper why as to the reason the movement towards medical marijuana has finally begun to flourish in Missouri
“Just seeing people dying, and I’m a paramedic, I see that a lot, with what they’re going through, I just think there should be the option,” he said.