Missouri Missed Out on Medical Marijuana in 2016. Here's Why

Jeff Mizanskey, who spent 22 years in prison for non-violent marijuana offenses, worked to gather signatures for Missouri's failed 2016 ballot initiative.
Jeff Mizanskey, who spent 22 years in prison for non-violent marijuana offenses, worked to gather signatures for Missouri's failed 2016 ballot initiative. PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

Notwithstanding the fascist buffoon elected to the White House, 2016 will be remembered as the year Americans flipped their country green. On November 8, voters in seven states slapped cannabis prohibition into the waste bin of history, pushing the total number of states with some form of legal weed to 28 — more than half the nation.

Ballot initiatives for recreational marijuana passed in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada, and medical marijuana initiatives rewarded the hopes of providers and patients in Florida, North Dakota and (improbably) Arkansas. As a cherry on top, a ballot initiative in Montana expanded the state's existing medical marijuana laws.

It can't be understated how big a victory this is. Election 2016 stands as the single largest marijuana legalization sweep, ever. And while the country appears bitterly divided over its new commander-in-chief, it's showing remarkable solidarity on weed.

Among Missouri's marijuana activists, however, 2016 will live in infamy. Despite years of outreach, preparation and polling that showed more than 60 percent of Missourians support medical cannabis, a proposed constitutional amendment for medical cannabis did not appear on Missouri ballots.

Why? The simple explanation is that the campaign failed to gather enough valid signatures. Basically, that the measure was defeated by math.

But how that happened is almost as important as why. The campaign didn't lack money or resources — donors stepped up with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and top-notch consultants and signature gatherers were hired. Nearly $2 million was spent, with nothing to show for it.

The failure has shaken the state's largest marijuana legalization group, Show Me Cannabis, which spent two years planning for a 2016 victory and whose leadership and board members formed the core of the campaign committee. They watched their hard work vanish in a puff of disappointment.

Show Me Cannabis is already insisting 2018 is the next target for a ballot initiative, but there is little to console Missouri patients who believed, with good reason, that 2016 was their year. General elections increase turnout, especially among younger voters who are more likely to support legalizing weed. Mid-term elections, like 2018, are usually dominated by an older, more conservative voting bloc.

Missouri's marijuana activists are still reckoning with a disappointment no one was expecting. But the full story of the 2016 marijuana fiasco goes deeper than a simple mathematical miss.

To really understand why Missouri isn't celebrating medicinal weed right now, you need to start with the prime culprit: the state's second congressional district in St. Louis County.

It was April 28, 2016, two weeks before the deadline to turn in signatures to get an initiative on a the ballot in Missouri. And John Payne, the political director of New Approach Missouri, was reading an email with mounting panic.

The non-profit committee had formed earlier that year with the backing of Show-Me Cannabis board members, with the express purpose of getting medical marijuana on Missouri ballots. Payne is Show-Me Cannabis' executive director and took the task of running point on the campaign's fundraising operation and managing the group's volunteer signature collectors.

The email was an update from PCI Consultants, the California-based firm hired to handle the brunt of signature-collecting duties for the campaign. The petition process is a costly operation. In March and April, New Approach Missouri had cut checks to PCI in excess of $700,000.

The email in Payne's inbox showed a breakdown of districts where PCI's signature-gatherers still needed to collect before the May 8 deadline, just ten days away. They needed to hit a total of about 168,000 valid signatures. To be on safe side, New Approach aimed to double that goal, preferably closer to 300,000.

According to the email, District 1, which includes St. Louis city and north county, was "done." But in District 2, encompassing south and west counties, something was very wrong.

The email to Payne was authored by PCI president Angelo Paparella. Alongside District 2, Paparella noted, "In trouble, need 20,000 more."

Payne looks back on the email as a harbinger of doom. He would later learn that PCI's collectors had over-collected from St. Louis city in District 1, leaving the campaign facing a serious shortfall in District 2 with less than two weeks to spare.

"It was the first time that I was worried about District 2," Payne recalls. "We'd had concerns about other districts, but they were being addressed. A shortage in District 2 was a completely unexpected thing to have happen."

And how did that shortage happen, exactly? Before dipping into the mess, it's important to understand Missouri's ballot-initiative game. Essentially, it is a process for passing laws or constitutional amendments without the state legislature. The basics are laid out in Missouri's constitution: "The people reserve power to propose and enact or reject laws and amendments to the constitution by the initiative."

The process has two steps. First, an initiative is submitted to Missouri's Secretary of State for approval, which means meeting certain formatting and legal standards. The petition is usually revised or amended several times. Once approved, supporters can start gathering signatures.

That's not as simple as staking out a single busy mall until you have 160,000 names on paper. Initiatives need to gather sufficient support from at least six of the state's eight congressional districts — but it must meet separate goals for each district, defined as eight percent of the district's votes from the last governor's election.

New Approach had to collect a minimum 27,603 signatures in District 1, which extends from St. Louis city through the northern suburbs to the Missouri River. Next door, in populous District 2, the initiative needed 32,337 signatures to pass. That district line zig-zags through St. Louis' near suburbs, ballooning outward to cover parts of St. Charles, Chesterfield, Ballwin, Fenton and Arnold to the south.

With the May 8 deadline bearing down on Payne and New Approach, discovering that District 2 was lagging was just about the worst news imaginable.

"District 2 is the toughest in some ways," Payne says now.

The signature gatherers seemed particularly confused by the district line that meanders between St. Louis city, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. It was common for collectors to return from the field with stacks of signatures from the wrong district.

As New Approach mobilized its entire force of collectors to hit District 2, the confusion only became more pronounced.

"One guy, he brought some signatures in and I said, 'This is all south city,'" recalls Payne, who himself notarized petitions for hours on end during the campaign's final stretch. "I had to get out a map. Some of these people coming from Springfield and Kansas City did not understand the distinctions between St. Louis city and St. Louis County. That ended up causing signatures to be lost."

Around 100 collectors were deployed to District 2. "We got to the grinding stone, and we started getting as many people as we could muster into the area," Payne says.

It would be close, but at the time he believed it was doable. And yet, as the days ticked down to May 8, he started noticing another peculiar thing about District 2, especially the dense suburbia of west county.

"It can be hard to find people in that district that live there. One of the problems with that area is, for whatever reason, people don't get out that much," Payne observes. "There's a lot of people around there, they just don't do anything. It was kind of confounding."

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