A push in the Missouri legislature to legalize medical marijuana has gone up in smoke.
The legislature’s chances to make Missouri the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana died in a conference committee two days before the end of session, leaving the issue up to voters to decide in November.
Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, added a medical marijuana amendment to a healthcare bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles County. Neely’s amendment would have allowed Missourians with terminal illnesses to access medical marijuana in a smokeless form.
In a conference committee to work out differences between the Senate and House versions of Eigel’s bill, lawmakers struck down the amendment.
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“I feel bad for the terminally ill that they won't be able to gain access to something that might provide some comfort,” Neely said. “Apparently the Senate wasn't supportive of that concept. To each his own. I don't harbor any ill will.”
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat who has sponsored legislation in support of medical marijuana in the past, said he feared Neely’s amendment would run into opposition in the Senate unless it was revised.
“We have senators in the chamber who simply won't sit down and allow medical cannabis to come to a vote,” Holsman said. “I was willing to put time in and work to improve Rep. Neely's bill.”
But to revise Neely’s bill in the Senate, Holsman said, it needed a committee hearing, which Neely canceled before it was scheduled to start.
“And once that happened,” Holsman said, “with the opposition with the senators on the floor and having no hearing, it basically became a moot point to discuss marijuana anymore the rest of the session.”
Neely’s bill had been filed early in the session, but struggled to get out of the usually uncontroversial House Rules committee in April. It passed out of the House in early May with additional amendments that expanded the list of qualifying conditions.
Less than a week later, the bill was scheduled to be heard in a Senate committee, but the hearing was canceled. Neely said he chose to withdraw his bill from the hearing because “things weren't going in a straightforward direction.”
Neely declined to clarify that statement.
Holsman said Neely’s amendment was struck this week, in part, because Neely’s previous bill had never been vetted in the Senate. Neely’s bill had received criticism from medical marijuana supporters that it would be too narrowly tailored.
“It really wasn't geared toward providing access to medical cannabis for those who need it. It was so narrowly defined that an industry would not have been able to exist under its language,” Holsman said. “Now we were going to improve that, but (Neely) decided to cancel his hearing.”
Neely, a physician with a background in healthcare managing a hospice agency, was critical of the Senate’s decision to quash his efforts.
“As a physician I travel all over the country getting continuing education. I've never seen one course that addresses medical marijuana,” Neely said. “And so apparently some people on the Senate side know more about medical marijuana than I do — and yet I've taken care of people for more than three decades. And so they know something that I don't. I wish they would come and educate me on it.”
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.
With Neely’s proposal dead, and the legislative session ending at 6 p.m. Friday, it will be up to Missouri voters to decide whether they want to legalize medical marijuana in November.
Four groups submitted signatures to the Secretary of State to put medical marijuana on the ballot.
▪ 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.
▪ Two versions of an initiative petition were filed by Charles Jones, and would legalize recreational and medical use of marijuana, in addition to releasing prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana-related crimes.
A majority of the proposals would amend Missouri’s constitution, which would only allow the legislature to implement laws regarding medical marijuana 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.
Holsman said lawmakers who don’t support legalizing medical marijuana are “well behind the people that they represent.”
“The prospects for a bill advancing in the legislature this year were very, very small — no matter what vehicle it was,” Holsman said. “Because the legislators continue to throw up roadblocks the people went around those roadblocks and used what was available to them by putting it on the ballot.”
Neely said he plans to continue to push the issue in the future.
“We just pick up another day,” he said.