Hartmann: A Strong Yes for a Weak Amendment 3

We can’t blow our one chance to end failed pot prohibition in Missouri

click to enlarge John Payne, campaign manager for Legal Missouri.
Amendment 3 backers, like campaign manager John Payne, are pushing a flawed initiative, writes Ray Hartmann. But it's better than the alternative.

If they had asked me to draft Amendment 3 to legalize marijuana in Missouri, it would have read as follows:

"All persons 21 years of age or over shall have the right to possess, cultivate, obtain, purchase or sell marijuana, subject to taxation by the state. All statutes interfering with those rights by the state, or its political subdivisions, are hereby repealed. The legislature is authorized to regulate and tax marijuana sales. All previous criminal convictions in Missouri for possession of marijuana are hereby expunged."

Regular readers of this column can understand why I wasn't enlisted to do the writing. But my draft would have had a whole lot better chance of passage than the version of Amendment 3 in front of voters on the November 8 ballot.

To describe that version as flawed understates the situation dramatically. It is a 39-page piece of legislation masquerading as a constitutional amendment — or 450 pages at a politician's reading level.

But I'll be voting for it because rejection would continue prohibition for marijuana for years to come. That's a nonstarter: Prohibition has failed as disastrously for cannabis as it did for alcohol a century ago — and for far longer than the 13 years of that travesty.

The criminalization of marijuana represents an ongoing catastrophe for the nation. Police made an estimated 350,150 arrests for marijuana-related violations in 2020, the most recent year for which those statistics are available, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.

The good news is that the number is dropping precipitously, as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reports: "This total is a 36 percent decrease from 2019 totals when police made an estimated 545,602 marijuana-related arrests. Not since the early 1990s has the FBI reported so few marijuana-related arrests in a single year."

But the bad news, which cannot be overstated, is that those hundreds of thousands of arrests continue to destroy Americans' lives in service of a Reefer Madness mentality that persists to this day. Not only does it continue to reflect irrationality and injustice — wildly disproportionate to people of color and the poor — but it strains every level of the criminal justice system.

Every minute — and penny — expended in pursuit of marijuana as a crime represents a failed opportunity for the system to focus upon more serious offenses. Especially violent ones. It begins with policing but impacts the courts, prosecutors and public defenders, probation officers, and everyone else in an underfunded and overburdened justice-system food chain.

Failure to pass Amendment 3 in Missouri would perpetuate a status quo of irrationality, injustice and misplaced resources. It shouldn't even require a second thought and should be enacted with an overwhelming margin of voters, not unlike the 65.6 percent who approved medical marijuana in 2018.

But here's where the story gets painful. The heroes of that victory have produced a sequel for adult-use marijuana that, like many movies, doesn't quite live up to the original.

As the RFT's Monica Obradovic reported, many people who instinctively might have supported Amendment 3 have been put off by language that "only helps Missouri's Big Cannabis businesses maintain their grip on the industry." The new initiative allows the same lucky few who were granted licenses for medical cannabis to expand their monopoly — and relegates the minorities and entrepreneurs who got the shaft last time around to second-tier, "microbusiness" status.

RFT was not alone in that critique. Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Wolff, an advocate for legalized pot, expressed similar concerns in a Post-Dispatch op-ed about Amendment 3 "putting a favored few in the driver's seat" with its provisions for how licenses would be issued.

Beyond the concerns publicized by Obradovic and Wolff, I think it's an unfortunate reality that the activists pushing this initiative again chose to address the details of implementation in the state constitution.

I hate to second-guess the people doing all the hard work from the comfort of my peanut gallery, especially when Legal Missouri 2022's leaders pulled off a medical-marijuana landslide four years ago. And it's fair to say that Amendment 2 in 2018 could have easily been criticized on the same count of having too much detail for a constitutional amendment.

But that was then, and this is now. Medical marijuana was an easier sell based upon the obvious need to address the suffering of the large number of Missourians who needed its benefits to address glaucoma, the side effects of chemotherapy, anxiety and so much more.

Medical marijuana has indeed been a godsend for hundreds of thousands of patients and their families. But it has faced one large hurdle: how to distribute and manage licenses. And it's hard to argue with those who note that the process has been plagued by big-money politics and racial discrimination.

That alone should have been good reason for the organizers of Amendment 3 to steer as far as possible from the details of implementation this time. It's understandable that they wanted to keep legalized cannabis out of the mitts of the political class, which was mostly responsible for allowing the licensing process to get overrun with politics, but doubling down with detailed rules that seem to rig the game for the same group of winners was a big mistake.

The formula that worked in 2018 wasn't the right template for 2022. Less would have been more for selling the concept of recreational marijuana — or "adult-use marijuana," as those organizers have smartly sought to rebrand it — and even if the devil were in the details, keeping a healthy distance from that devil would have been a smarter path.

Remember that the misery of Reefer Madness is not fully behind us. President Joe Biden recently surprised the nation by issuing mass pardons for people who committed federal marijuana possession cases — a wonderful surprise even if few such people were in the federal system at the time of his executive order.

But in today's divided political environment, even the fact that two-thirds of Americans approved of his move earned him no more than scant support from members of his own party. And he received the obligatory scorn from right-wing media and politicians.

Nationally, Republicans in Congress have continued to oppose Democratic measures to legalize marijuana at the federal level, even though their constituents don't care about the issue and lots of them are probably holding. It's reality.

And here's an even more important reality to consider when voting on Amendment 3 to legalize marijuana in Missouri: If it doesn't happen now, there's no chance of another bite at that edible for at least two years or more.

Governor Mike Parson, an outspoken foe of pot, won't permit its legislative legalization on his watch, which means until 2025. Who knows what's happening after that?

If you regard passing on the opportunity presented by Amendment 3 as a long-term strategy to replace it with something better or fairer in Missouri, I respectfully suggest you're smoking something.

Wouldn't you like it to be legal?

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).
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