Rep. Jim Neely has seen firsthand how a terminal illness like cancer ravages the body.
His own daughter died from cancer three years ago. With a background in health care working as a physician and managing a hospice agency, Neely, R-Cameron, knows the importance of patients receiving comfort.
That’s why he’s sponsoring a bill that would legalize medical marijuana in a smokeless form for Missourians with terminal illnesses.
“It's for people who are terminal to gain access for comfort,” Neely said. “This seems to me … as a good way to get started and seeing if there are some benefits.”
Critics of Neely’s bill come from all angles. Some say it goes too far and that any effort to legalize marijuana needs to come from the federal government.
Others say his bill is too restrictive and would help only a small swath of Missourians. Among them are three groups that aren’t waiting on lawmakers to make Missouri the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana and are pushing to put the issue before voters on November’s ballot.
The three initiative petitions gathering signatures all have the goal of legalizing medical marijuana, but they vary in their approach.
▪ A group called New Approach Missouri wants to place a 4 percent tax on the retail price of medical marijuana and put the revenue toward health care for veterans.
▪ Another group, Find the Cure, would charge a 15 percent sales tax on medical marijuana and use the revenue to fund a medical research institute run by an independent board.
▪ A third, Missourians for Patient Care, would create local licensing authorities that would have control over dispensary and distribution facilities — one per 100,000 population.
Brad Bradshaw, a Springfield lawyer and physician who drafted Find the Cure’s initiative petition, said Neely’s bill is “dead in the water.”
“(Neely’s bill is) going to be so restrictive that the patients won't get what they're needing. It's going to be in forms that are not really readily accessible by a lot of the patients,” Bradshaw said. “I think it's typical legislative, red-tape bureaucracy.”
Nationwide, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, and nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Weed is still illegal under federal law.
In the past two decades, Americans’ attitudes toward legalizing marijuana have changed drastically. According to a January 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 61 percent of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legalized — nearly double the 31 percent of Americans who felt that way in 2000.
But the question remains whether Missouri is ready to take the step to legalize medical marijuana. Neely, who sponsored a bill in 2014 that made Missouri one of the leaders nationwide by allowing terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs, thinks the state is.
“Marijuana's everywhere anyway," Neely said. "Some would say we need recreational marijuana, and I think it's already recreational, because it's everywhere. I sure hate seeing people locked up, incarcerated, as a result of drug use. We've got to find a better way of dealing with it.”
However, Neely’s bill struggled to get out of the usually uncontroversial rules committee. After a tie, the bill was initially voted down on April 4. Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, sits on the committee and said two lawmakers were absent when the vote was taken, and with their expected support, it would have passed.
The bill eventually did pass and last week was reconsidered and passed out of committee. The close vote hints at the legislature’s division on the issue, Lavender said.
“I think in some ways it does show that the legislature may not be ready yet,” Lavender said and predicted that a vote in the House would be close.
Rep. Kirk Mathews, R-Pacific, who voted against Neely’s bill when it was first heard in committee, said he’s hesitant to support the legalization of medical marijuana for fear it will bring Missouri one step closer to legalizing weed for recreational purposes.
“My concerns with the bill stem from conversations I continue to have with the law enforcement folks in my district,” Mathews said. “Every single state that has recreational marijuana use started as medicinal marijuana. It's fairly well-established that if you look at how other states have progressed to recreational use, that this is a stepping stone.”
Other opponents, such as the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, argued that before states tackle the issue, weed needs to be legalized at the federal level first. Jack Cardetti, spokesman for New Approach Missouri, a group that is proposing a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana, said the time to wait is over.
“While our colleagues and our loved ones and our family members and our friends are suffering with debilitating illnesses, we can't wait for Washington,” Cardetti said. “Twenty-nine other states haven't waited.”
The initiative petition proposals are broader than Neely’s bill, expanding the list of illnesses that would make someone eligible to receive medical marijuana and how they’re allowed to consume it.
A New Approach Missouri’s petition would allow the state to restrict the number of licenses issued for cultivation or dispensary facilities, but would set a minimum of one license per 100,000 population. Find the Cure’s proposal would limit the number of licenses issued to 50 dispensaries, with the ability to approve more for research purposes. Both proposals would amend Missouri’s Constitution.
Missourians for Patient Care’s initiative would be a statutory amendment. The group is facing an ethics complaint after recently coming under scrutiny for shrouding donors’ identities in secrecy. Missourians for Patient Care could not be reached for comment.
Neely, who said he has not read the initiative petitions, said he is confident in his bill, citing the more than 20 lawmakers who have signed on as co-sponsors.
Cardetti said a constitutional amendment “is the only option.”
“There's been bills filed for years and years for medical marijuana in the legislature, and they don't pass,” Cardetti said. “There is support in the Missouri House to possibly get something done, but there's very little support in the Missouri Senate, especially amongst the Senate leadership.”
But lawmakers worry that a constitutional amendment would restrict their ability to make revisions later. A constitutional amendment would allow the legislature to implement laws regarding medical marijuana but only if they don’t interfere with the amendment’s language. Any proposed changes to the amendment would require a vote by Missourians, according to the state’s Constitution.
“I think we have a little bit more ability to place specific rules and regulations on it if it comes through the legislature versus if it's the initiative petition, there may not be,” Lavender said. “I would be more apt to pass it through the legislation than through the initiative petition.”
Mathews said “the devil’s in the details” and that he would prefer whichever route would establish a stricter law.
If two or more initiative petitions are made law in November, the differences between them would need to be worked out. A constitutional amendment would supersede a statutory amendment, said Maura Browning, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.
If both petitions proposing constitutional amendments pass, the one that receives more votes would trump the other. However, such a situation would probably end up in court, where it would be up to the courts to decide how to compromise the conflicting provisions, Browning said.
Ultimately, Lavender hopes that lawmakers take a good look at the issue.
“I think that the people of Missouri are making it clear through gathering signatures that this is something they would like to see in our state, and it's not that we're ahead of the game here, but it would be nice if the legislature tried to be ahead of the people or at least in tandem with them.”