Coronavirus Could Jeopardize Campaign to Place Cannabis Legalization Initiative on Missouri’s November Ballot: Legalization Watch

Coronavirus Could Jeopardize Campaign to Place Cannabis Legalization Initiative on Missouri’s November Ballot: Legalization Watch

Missourians for a New Approach was on pace to meet its campaign goals until COVID-19 halted efforts to gather signatures for its petition.

March 31, 2020

Missourians for a New Approach is up against a May deadline to collect enough signatures for a petition to place an adult-use cannabis legalization initiative on Missouri’s November ballot, but the coronavirus pandemic could very easily spell doom for these efforts, according to Dan Viets, who chairs the campaign’s advisory board.

“It’s become much more difficult,” Viets tells Cannabis Business Times. “It’s causing major concerns. We have until the first week of May to gather 160,000 voter signatures. We have more than 60,000 in hand, but given the fact that petitioning is now much more difficult, we’re reassessing whether it’s going to be possible to accomplish this or not this year.”

Prior to the nationwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the campaign was on schedule, gathering signatures at a rate that would have allowed Missourians for a New Approach to meet the deadline with more than the required number of signatures, Viets says.

Missouri law requires those who wish to place an initiative on the ballot to gather signatures in six—and only six—of the state’s eight congressional districts.

“The first thing that every campaign has to do is pick out two districts where you’re not going to gather signatures, and signatures from those districts simply won’t count toward the total,” Viets says. “Then, you have a minimum in each of those six districts. In essence, you’re running six different campaigns and you have to meet the minimum in each of those six districts.”

“It’s never easy, but we were on course to accomplish it,” he adds. “We accomplished it two years ago, when we passed medical marijuana here. We were on course to do it again until the response to the coronavirus eliminated public gatherings. When you eliminate public gatherings, you eliminate the most useful opportunities to gather signatures efficiently and effectively.”

Missouri law does not allow for the electronic collection of signatures, but Missourians for a New Approach is currently assessing other options to keep the campaign afloat.

“We’ve already invested lots of work and time and money, but we don’t want to continue if it’s just not possible,” Viets says.

The initiative itself is 15 pages of language based largely on Missouri’s medical cannabis law, as well as elements that other states have implemented in their adult-use cannabis programs.

“We’ve used our opportunity to see what has worked and what has not worked well in other states, and we’ve tried to make the most of that opportunity,” Viets says.

The measure allows for a minimum number of business licenses issued for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, dispensaries and testing facilities. It does not set a maximum number of licenses, but it does allow the state to set a limit on licenses above certain minimums, Viets says. The proposal also allows medical cannabis licensees to apply for adult-use licenses, as well.

In addition, the initiative permits personal cultivation, so Missourians could grow their own cannabis plants at home for personal use.

The measure is a constitutional amendment instead of a statutory initiative; statutory initiatives can be revised by the state legislature, and Missourians for a New Approach feared that lawmakers would render the measure unworkable should voters pass it this fall.

“It takes far fewer signatures here in Missouri to put a statutory initiative on the ballot than it does to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, but just as we did with medical marijuana, we are absolutely convinced that only a constitutional amendment makes sense,” Viets says. “If we pass a statutory initiative, the legislature will not hesitate to immediately gut it, cut it to shreds, repeal it. They’ve done that with other issues and we’ve no doubt they’d do that with this, as well. So, we had no reason to even consider anything other than a constitutional amendment, which of course is immune to tinkering by the legislature.”

Missouri is still working to implement the medical cannabis initiative that voters approved in 2018, but there are now more than 40,000 patients enrolled in the program, Viets says, and patients are allowed to grow their own cannabis until dispensaries open. The commercial market is expected to launch sometime this summer.

The legislature is essentially shut down, however, as the state deals with the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s essentially as it is across the nation—so-called ‘non-essential’ businesses are closed,” he says. “That is interpreted in different ways in different places, but there’s a very low level of public activity—no public meetings, very little traffic and very little opportunity for petitioning, unfortunately.”

While reaching its signature goal may seem impossible amid the current chaos, Missourians for a New Approach has not formally suspended the campaign yet, and Viets vows that the effort will be back if it does perish in the wake of COVID-19.

“If we can’t accomplish it this year, we will very likely be back in 2022."