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Voters legalized weed in Missouri. Here’s what’s next for expungements and employers

Brennan England, owner of the Cola Private Lounge on Cherokee Street, lights up a blunt.
Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
Brennan England, owner of the Cola Private Lounge on Cherokee Street, lights up a blunt.

More than a million Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis for adults, but the historic election win was just the beginning.

Along with setting the framework for dispensaries to legally sell cannabis, Amendment 3 orders courts to issue "automatic expungement" of nonviolent marijuana convictions from criminal records by June 8, 2023. Eligible felony marijuana-related convictions have to be cleared by Dec. 8, 2023. But legal experts have raised concerns about those deadlines.

“They're automatic for the people who are getting the records expunged, but there's absolutely nothing automatic about it for the courts,” said John Payne, who oversaw the winning campaign for the ballot initiative in November. Payne served in the same role when Missouri legalized medical marijuana in 2018.

John Payne, Matt Schmidt and Brian Pezza discuss what comes next for Missouri cannabis

Before issuing an expungement, “The courts are really gonna have to go in and look at the factual basis of the case,” he noted.

That work takes time. Matt Schmidt, an assistant public defender recently based in St. Louis and now working in Cape Girardeau, held an expungement clinic last weekend. He told St. Louis on the Air that individual courts are still figuring out how to identify cases eligible for expungement — and he doesn’t believe the courts will be able to hit the deadlines set forth in the amendment.

Instead of waiting for the courts, “I would call up the court clerk where you were charged and explain it to them,” Schmidt suggested. “They may do your [case] first. It's more of a matter of skipping the line.”

But some changes brought on by Amendment 3 are already here. On Dec. 8, the day legalization for adults went into effect, Schmidt watched that impact play out in court.

“I saw the first guy come in on a marijuana charge, he was on probation for that,” he recalled. “And then the judge realized the underlying charge was marijuana and just let him go right there. … We're seeing this basically every day for the past couple of weeks. A bunch of charges get dismissed and dropped one way or another."

Along with those hoping to expunge their criminal records, employers also have a stake in the rollout of legalization. Brian Pezza, an employment and labor attorney at the St. Louis law firm Lewis Rice, told St. Louis on the Air that employers have questions about their power to prohibit the use of cannabis during work hours.

“That answer is fortunately quite clear, and the answer is, ‘Yes, you can continue to prohibit that,’” Pezza said.

Pezza also noted that Amendment 3 has created new protections for workers with who have medical marijuana licenses. Excluding industries subject to federal laws, the new provisions mean that workers can’t be fired for using cannabis as directed by their doctor.

He explained: “With respect to recreational marijuana, employers still have great latitude to test and to take adverse action in this much the same manner as they had done before. But one important part of Amendment 3 was to expand protections for employees who have medical clearance from their physicians to use marijuana.”

The first retail sales of recreational cannabis are expected to take place by early February 2023.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."