Although medical cannabis has technically been legal in Missouri for over a year and cards have been issued, patients are still waiting desperately for dispensaries to open across the state.
On November 8, 2018, Missouri became the 31st state to legalize medical marijuana.
Missouri residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amendment 2, with 65.59% of the vote — more than 1.5 million votes. In fact, the amendment garnered more votes than any other measure on the ballot, including the vote for Governor.
Amendment 2, which became effective on December 6, 2018, legalizes marijuana for medical purposes, allows home growing, and imposes a 4% marijuana sales tax.
Since its legalization, more than 45,000 Missourians have been approved for medical marijuana identification cards — and about 1,000 new registrations are approved each week.
Problems plaguing the medical cannabis program in Missouri are three-fold. First, Missouri implemented a seed-to-sale system which added many unnecessary layers between growing the plant and selling product to patients. Second, the program has experienced controversy and claims of disparities from its inception. Lastly, lockdowns and restrictions imposed by COVID-19 have resulted in unpreventable delays and setbacks.
Seed-to-sale systems complicate production and sale of cannabis
Licensed medical marijuana businesses, e.g., commercial grow operations, manufacturing facilities, and dispensary stores, are required to use seed-to-sale systems.
All seed-to-sale tracking systems must be able to interface with the State’s track and trace system, provide the DHSS with access to all stored data, and assure confidentiality of patient information and records. While crucial to compliance efforts, these mandatory systems significantly amplify the burden of getting product to market and into the hands of patients.
A 2017 report by the Colorado Department of Revenue says that the average time from seed to harvest is 132 days. Some indoor growers claim to be able to bring a crop to harvest in as little as 60 days.
Whether 60 days or 132 days, the point is the growing process takes time and certifications were not awarded until the beginning of the year. That, coupled with various limitations imposed by the coronavirus, means dispensaries may have a limited selection of products when they first open.
Irregularities plague Missouri’s Medical Marijuana Program
The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) oversees the State’s medical marijuana program. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the DHSS received 2,266 cannabis business applications filed by at least 700 different groups. It awarded 60 licenses to grow, 86 to manufacture cannabis-infused products, and 192 dispensaries to open.
Claims of irregularities as to how applications for licenses were scored run rampant. Additionally, lawmakers have raised concerns about alleged conflicts of interest within DHSS and a private company hired to score the applications.
“…the adoption of certain policies, created a licensing process that is a complex, costly, opaque, inappropriate and unlawful obstacle course for the applicants, and more concerning, created unreasonable and unlawful geographic and economic barriers to Patients access to the medicine promised by a vote of the people.”
Currently, more than 800 appeals of denials have been filed by companies claiming disparities in the scoring, or potential conflicts of interest in the awarding of medical marijuana licenses.
Last month, Sarcoxie Nursery Cultivation Center and related entities filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and several of its directors, seeking a temporary restraining order against several functions of the licensing program.
In Sarcoxie Nursery Cultivation Center LLC, et al. v. Randal Williams, et al., Case No. 19AC-CC00556, filed in Missouri Circuit Court, Cole County, Plaintiffs claim “the Defendants, through the promulgation of certain Rules and the adoption of certain policies, created a licensing process that is a complex, costly, opaque, inappropriate and unlawful obstacle course for the applicants, and more concerning, created unreasonable and unlawful geographic and economic barriers to Patients access to the medicine promised by a vote of the people, and guaranteed by Article XIV of the Constitution of the State of Missouri.”
The State claims no wrongdoing. A spokesperson for the DHSS said the allegations are simply based on a lack of understanding of the process.
Whether the claims are perception or reality, it is now a matter for the court to consider.
It is important to note that Plaintiff Sarcoxie is not asking that successful applicants be prevented from opening for business; or that patient access to medical cannabis be restricted; or that any applicant who meets the minimum standards be denied a license.
Coronavirus lockdowns have caused further delays in dispensary openings
COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have prevented state regulators and inspectors from gaining access to cannabis operations to certify that they are compliant with the program’s guidelines.
In late April, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson held a news briefing on the topic of the coronavirus crisis. During the briefing, Dr. Randall W. Williams, director of the DHSS, was asked about the launch of the medical cannabis program.
Dr. Williams implied that getting dispensaries open was not his top priority; however, he did say that inspectors should be able to perform inspections by mid-May and that he expects products to be on the shelves and ready to sell by “late July, early August.”
Dr. Randall W. Williams, director of the DHSS, said that he expects products to be on the shelves and ready to sell by “late July, early August.”
What’s the future hold for Missouri and marijuana?
Missourians for a New Approach, an organization with many of the same people and groups who supported Amendment 2, has been diligently working on getting recreational adult-use on the November 2020 ballot. Unfortunately, restrictions imposed by COVID-19 made collection of signatures impossible.
The organization is not giving up and will be targeting the next opportunity to get on the ballot.
The initiative aims to allow adults 21 years of age to purchase and possess marijuana legally in Missouri. Retail sales would be taxed at 15%, with the funds split amongst veterans services, Missouri roadways and bridges, and drug addiction programs.
Missourians with marijuana-related offenses will also have the opportunity to have a criminal record expunged. Local communities would be able to opt out of allowing recreational sales.
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