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Missouri Democrats Divided Over Marijuana Legalization Ballot Initiative, As Details Emerge On FBI Probe Into Cannabis Lobbying Efforts

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The FBI interviewed a handful of lawmakers and legislative staff about lobbying efforts related to a bill that would have legalized recreational use without license caps.

By Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent 

Nearly every day, Crystal Quade is somewhere in Missouri knocking on doors.

As Democratic leader in the Missouri House, Quade is hoping to help her party put a dent in the GOP supermajority that’s dominated the state legislature for more than a decade.

And when she heard the news earlier this month that a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana would appear on the November ballot, she thought her job might have just gotten a little easier.

“I definitely think that it will bring out more voters,” Quade said of the marijuana proposal, which will appear on the ballot as Amendment 3. ”It will bring out younger voters, and traditionally, younger voters tend to vote Democratic. So that is looking like good news for us.”

But asked what she thinks of the policy laid out in Amendment 3, Quade’s enthusiasm dims.

“I’m in support of legalization,” she said. “I wish the initiative was better, but it is what we’re given to work with right now.”

Quade has concerns about the expungement provisions laid out in the amendment, as well as the fact that it will continue to allow the state to cap business licenses to grow and sell marijuana—a system she believes led to potential corruption in the medical marijuana program.

But even with those caveats, she’s a yes on Amendment 3.

“It’s a starting point,” Quade said. “We definitely will have to make improvements if this passes.”

Quade’s conundrum is not unique among Missouri Democratic leaders.

Support for legalization and heartburn about the amendment’s details have led to soul-searching among Democratic Party officials across the state. The consternation is particularly acute among Black Democratic leaders.

“I’m a yes for legalization,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones (D) recently tweeted, “but upon further study, it looks like the devil is in the details…literally and figuratively.”

Rosetta Okohson, Jones’ campaign manager, said the mayor remains concerned about a licensing system set up for medical marijuana that resulted in few successful applicants from Black and Brown communities. Since current license holders get first dibs on new recreational licenses, Okohson said Amendment 3 reinforces the inequity.

Jones also has concerns, Okohson said, about a provision that would be enshrined in the state constitution allowing police to issue citations for smoking marijuana in unapproved public areas, which critics have begun calling “stop and cite.”

“When we are expanding police powers, and putting it in the constitution,” Okohson said, “that’s always going to give Mayor Jones pause.”

If Amendment 3 is approved by voters, the only way to change it in the future would be to place another constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) said he’s still undecided about the proposal, though he is “leaning yes.”

He agrees with Quade that having legalization on the ballot should help Democrats’ chances in the fall. And he understands the concerns about the medical marijuana licensing process.

But any electoral considerations or licensing issues are outweighed, Lucas said, by the possibility of making progress toward ending the “colossal failure” of America’s war on drugs that has been uniquely unjust in the Black community.

“I do want licenses to be more equitable. But I am not in the license game,” Lucas said. “I’m in the caring about the 500,000 people in Kansas City game. And I don’t want them busted for a small amount of pot if they find themselves in any community in the state of Missouri.”

‘The baseline’ 

Amendment 3 asks voters whether to amend the Missouri Constitution to remove bans on marijuana sales, consumption and manufacturing for adults over 21 years old, with some caveats.

The amendment includes automatic expungement for certain people who have nonviolent marijuana-related offenses on their record. People who are still incarcerated would have to petition the courts to be released and have their records expunged.

It would create a regulated market where, just like for medical marijuana, the state would have the authority to cap the number of licenses it issues to grow and sell cannabis. Those with a current medical marijuana business license would be first in line to get recreational licenses.

In the current medical marijuana program, the state has issued around 200 dispensary and 65 cultivation licenses.

The amendment would also create a “micro-licensing” program that would be granted through a lottery process. Applicants must be a resident from a ZIP code with high marijuana incarceration rates or meet other such requirements.

John Payne, campaign manager for Legal Missouri, the organization behind the legalization amendment, downplayed any electoral impact the amendment could have for either political party.

“It’s not really on our radar,” he said. “In other states that have had this on the ballot, it doesn’t seem to have a big effect on general turnout.”

When it comes to winning over voters, Payne said the expungement provision is probably the amendment’s top selling point.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested for marijuana possession in the state of Missouri in the last 30-40 years,” Payne said. “All of them are going to be able to have those expunged as long as it’s not an offense involving violence, sale to minors or driving under the influence. That’s pretty life changing.”

Payne acknowledged many provisions in the amendment, including the expungement language, may not go far enough for some people. But he said the amendment should be seen for what it is—a starting point.

“This is the baseline,” Payne said. “This is not the final be all, end all on this subject.”

Criticism of other aspects of the proposal, such a provision allowing law enforcement to issue citations for public use of marijuana, are “being done in bad faith,” Payne said.

“It is already illegal to consume marijuana in public,” he said. “You’re going to get charged with what you have on you, which would be a misdemeanor under state law at the very least.”

Payne said Amendment 3 makes illegal public consumption an infraction, subject to a civil penalty and a fine.

“We are reducing the penalty,” he said.

But critics argue the goal of legalization should not be to reduce penalties. It should be to end them. And they fear enshrining a new infraction in the constitution will lead to further racial profiling and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

“Nobody wants to implement ‘stop and cite’ because we know that,” said state Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Kansas City Democrat and chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus. “New York. Ferguson. Kansas City. We know that.”

Despite the criticism, including being denounced as “deceitful” by the state’s largest Black newspaper, proponents of the amendment—which includes groups like the ACLU of Missouri and St. Louis chapter of the NAACP—are optimistic about its chances this fall.

“We know there is still work to do,” Payne said. “But we know that this is an issue that is supported by a solid majority of Missouri voters, so we’re feeling good about our odds going into November.”

FBI scrutiny

Reports of irregularities in how license applications were scored, as well as allegations that conflicts of interest within the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and a private company hired to score applications, have fueled criticism of the medical marijuana program and inspired a House oversight committee probe.

With legalization on the horizon, the industry has also endured rumblings about federal law enforcement scrutiny, most recently in the closing weeks of the 2022 legislative session.

The FBI interviewed a handful of lawmakers and legislative staff about lobbying efforts related to a bill that would have legalized recreational use without license caps. The bill, which was opposed by the medical marijuana industry, cleared a pair of committees but was never debated by the full House before the legislature adjourned.

Among those interviewed by federal law enforcement were state Rep. Nick Schroer, a St. Charles County Republican who successfully added a poison-pill amendment to the marijuana legalization bill barring transgender women from accessing no-interest loans for women-owned cannabis businesses.

Schroer did not respond to requests for comment by The Independent.

Also interviewed was House Majority Leader Dean Plocher (R), who decided during the final weeks of the legislative session not to bring the legalization bill up for debate.

Plocher declined to comment about his conversation with the FBI.

“I don’t discuss private conversations with anybody,” Plocher said. “I just don’t think it’s right to do.”

Asked if he spoke with any lobbyists about the legalization bill, Plocher said he heard from all sides of the issue, which he added was typical on nearly every bill that ends up on the House debate calendar.

The May interviews were just the latest example of law enforcement interest in Missouri’s marijuana industry.

In November 2019, a federal grand jury demanded the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services turn over all records pertaining to medical marijuana license applications of four individuals by the following January.

Soon after, the state legislature convened, and in the weeks that followed, FBI agents began interviewing lawmakers, lobbyists and staff. Most questions focused on Steve Tilley, a lobbyist and close adviser to Gov. Mike Parson (R) who represents numerous clients in the medical marijuana industry, including the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association.

The department received two more federal grand jury subpoenas in 2020.

All three subpoenas that DHSS has turned over to the media were redacted at the request of the federal government to obscure the records being sought by law enforcement.

In the summer of 2021, a Kansas businessman named Joseph Campbell was questioned by federal law enforcement about marijuana licensing in Missouri.

Campbell, who revealed the FBI questioning as part of a sworn deposition in a civil lawsuit unrelated to marijuana, was an investor in a company seeking licenses to cultivate and sell medical cannabis. Tilley served for a time as that company’s lobbyist.

Payne defended how Missouri has implemented medical marijuana, saying a tightly regulated program has avoided problems some states have seen, such as a growing black market.

“I’m not gonna say that every single decision by the department was correct,” he said. “There’s obviously been times that I’ve disagreed with things they’ve done. But by and large, I think they have implemented a very successful program and it is a very competitive market.”

The Independent’s Rebecca Rivas contributed to this story. 

This story was first published by Missouri Independent.

Senator Hopes To Pass ‘Some Key Reforms’ On Marijuana This Year, But Says Full Legalization Is A ‘Difficult Feat’

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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