Government & Politics

Missouri is considering taxing illegal drugs and legalizing medical marijuana

Medical marijuana plants for sale at a California medical marijuana dispensary.
Medical marijuana plants for sale at a California medical marijuana dispensary. TNS

It took a little while for Missouri Rep. Shawn Rhoads’ colleagues to wrap their heads around the idea of taxing marijuana and other illegal drugs.

“A drug dealer is supposed to show up and buy a tax stamp for his drugs?” Bill Lant, a Republican from southwest Missouri, asked during a committee hearing on the bill.

Most of the hearing went pretty much like that.

“They needed a little time to let the idea sink in,” said Rhoads, a south-central Missouri Republican. “About 15 minutes after the meeting, I had someone grab me and say, ‘I get it now.’”

It must have sunk in. The bill won the committee’s approval Wednesday.

But while lawmakers ponder making Missouri the 21st state to collect taxes on illegal drugs, they’re also contemplating heading in the opposite direction and making Missouri the 24th to legalize marijuana in some fashion.

Two weeks earlier, that same House committee approved a medical marijuana bill on a 10-1 vote.

Missouri’s increasingly conservative politics, and its overwhelmingly Republican General Assembly, apparently aren’t immune to the national momentum behind marijuana legalization.

Gallup has been surveying the public on marijuana since 1969. In 2013, it found for the first time that a clear majority of Americans — 58 percent — believed the drug should be legal. That was a 10 point jump in just one year.

Twenty-three states have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Four of those states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while the rest legalized it for medicinal purposes. In the District of Columbia, it’s now legal to grow pot and give it away, but not to sell it.

Last year, Missouri lawmakers approved legislation allowing the use of no-high hemp oil for children with rare forms of epilepsy. The cannabidiol, or CBD oil, bill marked the first time Missouri legislators “took a positive vote on anything related to cannabis,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.

“It was an incremental step,” Holsman said. “Now we’re in a position to take another incremental step.”

That baby step would create a tightly regulated medical marijuana system in Missouri.

Legislation passed out of two House committees would let Missouri issue up to 30 state licenses for medical cannabis centers and 30 state licenses for medical cannabis cultivation and production facilities across the state.

Only patients with specific illnesses would be eligible to register with the recommendation of a doctor. The state’s Department of Health and Senior Services would administer the program.

House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, has said Missouri’s bill would be the “most restrictive and protective medical marijuana bill that there is in the country.”

While he’s open to debating the bill, Diehl said lawmakers have to be “very, very careful and make sure that you don’t have any unknown unknowns on how you set it up.”

Advocates for broader legalization say the measure is far too restrictive.

“Access for patients that will benefit will be very limited,” said Aaron Malin, director of research at Show-Me Cannabis. “Patients that don’t live in the right geographic localities and don’t have the financial resources simply won’t have access to medical cannabis. And that’s very unfortunate.”

Despite the misgivings, though, Malin said the bill still represents a step in the right direction.

“Any progress is progress,” he said. “And amending a medical cannabis law that already exists is a thousand times easier than passing the law in the first place.”

Regardless of what lawmakers ultimately do with the medical marijuana bill, Malin said his organization still plans to place the issue before voters in 2016. Polling is being conducted to see exactly what that ballot question will look like — expanded medical marijuana or full legalization.

“If there isn’t support for regulating and taxing cannabis in a similar way as alcohol for adults” — for recreational use, he said, “we’ll put together a robust medical cannabis initiative.”

An analysis by the Missouri auditor’s office of a ballot measure legalizing the production, sale, distribution and consumption of marijuana by people at least 21 years old could boost state revenue by at least $75 million.

Rhoads’ drug tax bill won’t generate anywhere near that much revenue. But he said what it does produce will help fund law enforcement and drug treatment programs.

If the bill is passed, those in possession of the drugs would be required to buy a state-issued tax stamp. A stamp wouldn’t legalize the product — which includes not only marijuana but any illegal drug, from heroin to cocaine to methamphetamine. Someone caught with illegal drugs who doesn’t have a stamp could face a fine or additional criminal charges.

A person would be able to purchase the tax stamp anonymously in advance. But most of the time in states with a drug tax stamp, money collected comes as an additional penalty upon drug offenders after they are arrested and criminally charged with a drug violation.

Kansas has had a drug tax stamp law on the books since 1987, said Phil Wilkes, legal adviser to the Kansas Department of Revenue.

“Just because you’re making money on something that’s illegal shouldn’t exempt you from taxation,” Wilkes said.

Holsman called the idea “a relic of the past.”

“It harkens back to a time when you had a drug war culture in search of revenue,” he said. “It’s an attempt to self-fund the war on drugs.”

Despite the fact that the purchase of drug tax stamps would be done so anonymously, critics have raised concerns that it could still represent a violation of the constitutional protection against self-incrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal marijuana tax in 1969 on these grounds.

And last year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that someone can’t be convicted of both possession of a drug and possession of the same drug without a tax stamp. That would constitute double jeopardy.

Rep. Dave Hinson, a St. Clair Republican sponsoring the medical marijuana bill, isn’t interested in legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. But he said Missouri lawmakers’ attitudes about medical marijuana are evolving.

“It is time to accept,” Hinson said, “that medical cannabis is an effective treatment option.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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