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Some legal marijuana advocates say Missouri's ballot issue doesn’t help enough with convictions

Beth Bell, the manager of Fresh Green, displays the contents of a child-proof-jar the medical marijuana dispensary sells that contains the flower of the marijuana plant.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Beth Bell, the manager of Fresh Green, displays the contents of a child-proof-jar the medical marijuana dispensary sells that contains the flower of the marijuana plant.

Critics of a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana in Missouri are gearing up for a long fight to Election Day.

Some of the most strident opposition comes from cannabis advocates. They say that Amendment 3, which purports to support full legalization, would actually work against full decriminalization of cannabis use.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced last week that the initiative petition to legalize recreational marijuana qualified for the November ballot with more than 214,500 valid signatures across the state.

Since then, cannabis advocates have been in a media frenzy, contending that some parts of the petition are misleading. Amendment 3 will be on the statewide ballot on Nov. 8.

“It’s not that I’m against legalizing marijuana,” Tim Gilio, a longtime marijuana advocate in Lee’s Summit, told The Beacon. “We just want it done right.”

Like the medical marijuana initiative petition that voters approved in November 2018, the changes to legalize marijuana in Missouri would be enshrined in the state constitution and could not be changed without another initiative petition.

Supporters of Amendment 3 say it would legalize adult-use marijuana in Missouri, create a process for those convicted of some nonviolent marijuana offenses to petition for expungement and set up a microbusiness market that would prioritize those historically impacted by drug laws across the country, among other changes.

But critics argue that language in the amendment would create unnecessary restrictions on the market and its customers.

These intricacies of the 30-page constitutional amendment, which the secretary of state called “particularly lengthy” and encouraged Missourians to read, are where advocates are hoping to come together to educate Missourians before they cast November ballots.

“People say, ‘Well, something is better than nothing,’ and no, something isn’t better than nothing if you can’t change it,” Gilio said. “It gets into the constitution and we’re not able to change it. So we have to work really, really hard to keep it from being in the constitution.”

Ryan Chorice, general manager of The Hub Smoke Shops, said the chain put in five applications to sell medical marijuana, but all were denied. He worries that the Legal Missouri amendment will shut out most applicants again.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Ryan Chorice, general manager of The Hub Smoke Shops, said the chain put in five applications to sell medical marijuana, but all were denied. He worries that the Legal Missouri amendment will shut out most applicants again.

Expungements and potential civil charges among chief area of concern

The ballot measure would make a number of changes to the way the state treats marijuana convictions. While advocates say it would improve the current process, they are still concerned that it leaves behind some of the people most impacted by drug-related crimes.

Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Democrat from Kansas City, is the chair of Missouri’s Legislative Black Caucus, which opposes the amendment. She said she thinks a lot of people don’t fully understand what is in the measure, partly due to its length.

“Normally, I’d say ‘go read it.’ But they’re not going to read it, because it’s like 30-something pages long,” she said. “You’re guaranteed that they’re not going to read it. You’re hoping that the Black and brown people will just hear ‘legalization’ and then vote for it.”

The amendment campaign, which has support from the state’s cannabis trade organization, the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP St. Louis City, among others, says the ballot measure would offer automatic expungement of certain marijuana-related misdemeanors or felonies. But the process wouldn’t be automatic for everyone.

Based on the ballot language, those who are currently incarcerated or in a halfway house serving sentences for misdemeanors of Class E or D felonies involving possession of 3 pounds or less of marijuana would be able to petition the court to vacate their sentences, order release from incarceration and expunge the cases.

Expungement would be automatic for those who are on probation or parole for the same classification of marijuana offenses. But for people who are currently serving time, the amendment language specifies that expungement requests shall be granted “absent good cause for denial.”

The phrase “good cause for denial” raises alarm bells for Ben Hartley, a Kansas City-based cannabis advocate and founder of Real Legalization MO, which supports an end to the “prohibition” of cannabis.

“That’s a very broad phrase. And if what we’ve dealt with thus far in the legal system has any indication of how that could go, a lot of people could end up back in prison,” he said.

Hartley noted that the measure excludes from automatic expungement people charged with possession of three or more pounds of marijuana or cannabis-related DUI offenses, people with Class C felonies and people charged with selling to a minor.

“The campaign will say ‘automatic expungement’ and everybody jumps for joy,” he said. “But again, the devil is in the details. Those are very important things.”

Hartley also pointed out that there is no appeals process written into the ballot language, meaning if someone’s request for expungement was denied, they could not appeal that decision.

People with more serious Class A, B or C felonies would not be eligible to petition the court to vacate their sentences under the amendment until after the completion of their incarceration, including probation or parole.

Another cause for concern for Gilio is the possibility of a civil citation if one is smoking marijuana in a nondesignated public space. Those caught doing so under the potential new law are subject to a civil penalty and a fine.

“When you’re an advocate, you want to end prohibition, you don’t want to add things into the constitution. So people are surprised to find out that if you get caught smoking in public and you’re gonna receive a penalty,” Gilio said. “But why even add that in? That’s not being an advocate to end prohibition, that’s just prolonging the prohibition.”

Missourians would be allowed to possess up to 3ounces of dried cannabis flower under the provision. People who possess less than 6ounces of marijuana but more than the 3 ounces allowed by the state would be subject to civil violations on first and second offenses and a misdemeanor and fine of up to $1,000 for a third offense.

The initiative would not change the amount required for a felony conviction, over six ounces.

What’s next for concerned advocates?

Hartley said he thinks the key to defeating Amendment 3 is to reach out to people beyond the circle of Missourians who are already keenly interested in the issue.

“Our message is still resonating across the state,” he said “So if we do a good job, they’re going to fail.”

Hartley launched a website that he says he will use to try to clear up misconceptions about the ballot measure. He hopes to see a coordinated effort against the measure from advocacy groups across the state.

Bland Manlove is using her position as a state legislator to connect with her community and educate them on what she deems the most important things to know.

“I have that luxury of being from the people that I’m talking to. So they know me and the people I bring with me are trusted people, so they know I’m coming to them with real information,” she said. “Now we’re just trying to educate as many people as possible.”

Giliio said he and other advocates have picketed medical dispensaries that financially supported the measure and have plans to continue that through November.

“So we have all intentions on picketing every dispensary that we can across the state in every major city so we can draw as much attention to all the demographics that we can,” he said. “Because these people had a vested interest in doing this.”

Under Amendment 3, already operating medical marijuana facilities would have first dibs on moving into the recreational market. The measure states that 80% of licenses initially granted for adult use are to come from facilities that are already licensed medically.

Some of the top donations for the campaign to get Amendment 3 on the ballot, also known as Legal MO 2022, came from LLCs already operating alongside marijuana facilities in the state, according to the campaign’s July finance report.

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.