Cannabis leaves on light blue background.
HB 2704, seen as the main legislative path toward legalizing recreational cannabis in Missouri, seems unlikely to pass through both the House and Senate before the session ends May 13. (File photo)

Update (Nov. 18, 2022): Missouri became the 21st state to legalize recreational marijuana on Nov. 8, 2022. The Beacon broke down Missouri’s next steps as the state begins the process of transitioning medical marijuana licenses to recreational licenses.

Those hoping to see adult-use cannabis legalized in Missouri through legislative action may be out of luck this year, according to supporters of HB 2704, a legalization bill currently stalled in the House of Representatives. 

But two potential ballot initiatives may be able to pick up where the stalled bill left off. 

A voter-driven initiative petition process, aiming to amend the state’s constitution to legalize cannabis, is preparing to submit hundreds of thousands of signatures to get the measure on the November ballot, while lawmakers gave initial approval to a different joint resolution to legalize cannabis in Missouri by amending the state’s constitution. 

Supporters of HB 2704, otherwise known as the Cannabis Freedom Act, say the bill centers around the best interest of Missourians. It originally had no license caps, removing limitations to the number of people who can do business in the industry, and would provide no-interest loans to women and minority-owned businesses. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Defiance, called the bill a “free market approach” to cannabis.

The bill was ultimately amended to incorporate license caps, and would double the number of licensees allowed in the market, which Hicks and other co-sponsors of the bill opposed.

Despite bipartisan support for the bill, controversy ensued earlier this month after Hicks said early last week that House Majority Floor Leader Dean Plocher, a fellow Republican, was blocking the advancement of HB 2704. 

Meanwhile, the most notable campaign for a constitutional amendment, known as LegalMO 2022, is readying to turn in over 325,000 signatures to get their measure on the ballot before the Sunday deadline. The proposal is backed by the state’s cannabis trade lobby, which testified in opposition to HB 2704.

With the low likelihood of the Cannabis Freedom Act making it to a full vote before the session ends May 13, legislators this week introduced a joint resolution in an effort to put a constitutional amendment of their own on the ballot for voters in November — separate from LegalMO 2022.

LegalMO 2022 ready to submit to secretary of state, while concerns bubble about market inequity 

LegalMO 2022’s proposal would legalize adult-use cannabis, automatically expunge some Missourians with nonviolent cannabis convictions and would continue to allow the state to maintain operating licenses.

Petitioners need 170,000 to 180,000 valid signatures to qualify for a statewide ballot this year, according to the petition’s campaign manager, John Payne. 

“We’re confident that our historic signature count provides the necessary cushion to qualify for the ballot,” Payne said in a news release. “But we’re not taking any chances, and will continue to pound the pavement these next several days to ensure our proposal exceeds the required threshold.”

LegalMO says the initiative petition’s market framework would, with a 6% sales tax, generate an estimated $40.8 million in annual revenue and additional local government revenues of at least $13.8 million, citing a state fiscal analysis of the proposition. 

The proposal is spearheaded by leaders from A New Approach Missouri, the same group that petitioned for the medical marijuana constitutional amendment that Missourians approved in 2018. 

But critics have expressed worry over potential ways of doing business under the LegalMO framework, which parallels what was put in place in 2018. They cite concerns of bias in the market via license caps given out by the state. Unlike the original language of HB 2704, caps could be part of the market, something advocates have decried amid allegations of bias in granting licenses. 

Some argue that limiting licenses is necessary to prevent too much product infiltrating the legal market, which could lead to the growth of the black market. 

“People say, ‘You have to have caps to make sure people don’t get in and that you’re checking people,’” Rep. Ashley Bland-Manlove, D-Kansas City and the chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, told The Beacon about caps in April. Bland-Manlove is a co-sponsor of HB 2704. 

“Caps create a bigger black market, because when you have caps that means less people can get in. So therefore, they still want to do it and they’re still gonna do it,” she added. 

LegalMO would give current medical marijuana operators first dibs at recreational licenses, and would designate 80% of the licenses to those who are already licensed medically. The other licenses would be awarded through a lottery process to microbusinesses, which are defined as businesses whose owners bring in less than $250,000 a year, reside in high-poverty areas or have been prosecuted for or convicted of a nonviolent marijuana offense. 

HB 2704 would have originally attempted to address the issue of inequity in the market through a measure to offer no-interest loans to minority and women-owned businesses. 

A new cannabis legalization proposal to meet the moment

A Republican-led joint resolution to address some of the market concerns made its way through the legislature this week. 

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, sponsored HJR 83, which passed through the Special Committee on Criminal Justice on Tuesday. It would take a similar approach to legalizing cannabis through a constitutional amendment process, where, if passed by the legislature this session, voters could approve the resolution on their ballot this November.

Dogan’s plan would remove cannabis offenses from the state’s criminal statute, which would allow Missourians to possess, use and sell cannabis for personal use without facing penalties. 

This approach, however, does not include the vast regulatory language that LegalMO does. Dogan said would keep regulatory control over the industry within the legislature, instead of those who wrote the constitutional amendment. 

This option, he said, “streamlines the original resolution,” by leaving much of the regulatory aspects of legalization up to the legislature if voters pass the resolution in 2022.

“Most importantly, we took out the part about taxation, and just said that taxation and regulation of marijuana should be left up to the legislature because that is a very difficult and complex subject to deal with in a constitutional amendment,” Dogan said. 

Dogan said it is not possible to add the resolution to an already existing bill, meaning that it would need to pass through both the House and Senate as a standalone piece of legislation. 

If the legislature passes it and voters in November approve Dogan’s proposal, it would not become effective until January 31, 2024, in order to give lawmakers time to create regulations for the legal market. 

Recent Posts

MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...