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."
On May 3, five days before the signature deadline, Jeff Mizanskey stood on the right shoulder of the road outside the entrance to Queenie Park in Ballwin. He waved a banner reading "Support Medical Marijuana/Sign Petition Here" at the cars whizzing past. After about two hours of standing around, he'd garnered few actual signatures.
"The people of this state need this," he said as another car drove by with a honk. "I just wish they would take time and sign the petition."
Mizanskey stands as the living embodiment of the harm wrought by the drug war. After a 1993 conviction for helping transport a few pounds of pot, the small-time Sedalia dealer triggered the state's three-strike drug policy. Despite having only non-violent marijuana offenses on his record, Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
It took concerted effort by Show-Me Cannabis — and a Riverfront Times cover story — to turn Mizanskey into a priority for Missouri drug reformers. Public outcry persuaded Governor Jay Nixon to commute Mizanskey's sentence in September 2015. Mizanskey stood before a parole board for the first time in more than twenty years of imprisonment, and a month later he walked free.
For Mizanskey, now 63, being a free man meant speaking out against drug prohibition. He's criss-crossed the country, attending cannabis conventions and advocating for sentencing reform. And in Missouri, he took up New Approach's ballot initiative as his own personal mission.
Granted, the proposal didn't go nearly as far as Mizanskey would have liked. New Approach Missouri's initiative would allow doctors to recommend cannabis to patients suffering from diagnosed terminal illnesses and serious ailments such as cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain and PTSD. While the initiative would put limits — and yearly fees — on grow operations and dispensaries, it put no restrictions on the amount of the individual licenses available to patients. The retail tax was set at four percent, with the funds going to operation costs and veteran support programs.
It wasn't perfect, but Mizanskey and others believed it was Missouri's best shot at legalization. New Approach hired Mizanskey as an independent signature-collector around the state. With time running out, he'd joined the emergency rush in District 2.
But Mizanskey and the other collectors were already running into the same county-specific quirks that worried Payne. It was maddeningly difficult to find public locations with foot traffic in St. Louis County. Several New Approach volunteer collectors suggest that a noticeable contingent of PCI's paid collectors (mostly out-of-towners, paid per-signature) were more concerned with the quantity of their haul than elucidating the difference between St. Louis city and St. Louis County.
It wasn't like collection was a cake-walk in other parts of the state. Rural districts tend to be more conservative and overall more hesitant to embrace legalizing drugs. On April 28 (the same day Payne received the bummer email from PCI), three signature collectors were arrested in Joplin and cited for trespassing. The collectors, believing they were on public property, had staked out a DMV in an outdoor strip mall. Joplin police disagreed, although criminal charges were ultimately never filed.
Under pressure in District 2, the confusion over the city-county line snarled even the most experienced signature collectors. That included Trish Bertrand, who spent most of the campaign coordinating volunteers in District 7, in the southwest corner of the state.
"I can see why the actual signature collectors over-collected in District 1, because the first time I was in St. Louis I accidentally went to a DMV in St. Louis city," says Bertrand, the executive director of the Springfield chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "Once I figured out I was in the wrong place, I went to a place in District 2, a south county DMV. It was much, much harder to collect there."
And even putting aside the design of Missouri's congressional districts, a host of technical reasons can invalidate a signature, ranging from a voter not being registered at the time of signing, being registered in the wrong district or just signing on the wrong county form. That's why New Approach needed as many signatures as possible. The assumption was that at least half would be eliminated one way or another.
By the May 8 drop-dead deadline, the rush was over. Payne says the collectors turned in 20,000 more signatures, hitting the campaign's goal for District 2. New Approach submitted its petitions to the local election authorities, who would spend the next three months pouring over the signatures.
On August 9, 2016, after months of painstaking review, Secretary of State Jason Kander announced the results. Although New Approach had submitted 40,745 signatures in District 2, the various local election boards wiped out 10,000, deeming them invalid. The campaign had come up short 2,242 valid signatures.
Absent legal intervention, the pot initiative was screwed.
New Approach immediately sued Kander's office, challenging the Secretary of State's declaration and arguing that more than 2,000 so-called "invalid" signatures had been wrongfully thrown out by overworked election officials in District 2, mostly in St. Louis County. A trial date was set for late September in Cole County.
If New Approach's volunteer army thought the ten-day crunch back in May was tough, the next month would push them even harder. PCI staffers in California combed the petitions to identify signatures that appeared valid, and then transmitted spreadsheets of data to Missouri. Local volunteers essentially lived in the Secretary of State's office in Jefferson City. They worked long hours, meticulously matching petition signatures with state voter records. The volunteers searched for signatures invalidated due to sloppy handwriting; those were sent to the lawyers in St. Louis to analyze.
Mizanskey, the ex-con who had spent 22 years of his life in a series of small rooms, now willingly confined himself to computer-strewn conference rooms in Jefferson City and St. Louis. Along with other volunteers, he cross-checked the spreadsheets coming from PCI with the official state voter rolls. They looked for signatures marked by local election officials as "not registered," identifying the ones that appeared to be registered properly in District 2.
The volunteers went through thousands of names, checking for signatures, addresses and registration cards. The documents were bundled and printed by the thousands, rising in paper towers across a conference table in the Secretary of State's office. At day's end, a courier would deliver the stacks of evidence to the lawyers' office in St. Louis, where records were analyzed and processed by a separate team of volunteers. Then the courier would drive back to Jefferson City for more. This went on for weeks.
"It was amazing how many signatures we found that should never have been thrown out to begin with," says Chris Chesley, a St. Louis volunteer who estimates he put 150 hours into New Approach's pre-trial efforts. He acknowledges that other factors were at play in St. Louis County, and that no evidence suggests that election officials maliciously struck signatures. Still, "no other county threw out more signatures than St. Louis County," he says. "It just seemed that it was out to get us from the very beginning."
Eric Fey, director of elections for St. Louis County, doesn't see a conspiracy in how his department handled New Approach's petitions. He notes that four other initiative campaigns managed to assemble enough signatures to make the ballot.
"What it really comes down to is that they collected fewer signatures than the other petitions," Fey says. "I think if they're being honest, that's probably the heart of the matter here. They didn't collect enough signatures."
But there was an unambiguously hostile force opposing New Approach's legal case, and it wasn't within the Secretary of State's office or the county elections board. It was a collection of Missouri prosecutors.
An August 18 affidavit signed by twelve Missouri prosecuting attorneys, including Jennifer Joyce of St. Louis city and Bob McCulloch of St. Louis county, argued that it didn't matter one whit if New Approach's initiative had enough signatures.
Weed, they argued, was illegal under federal law. Legalizing it would violate the Missouri and U.S. Constitution.
Marijuana, the affidavit stated, is "a destructive drug, with no benefits (medical or otherwise)." Access even to medical marijuana "would be a devastating mistake for millions of Missourians." The affidavit requested that the prosecutors' attorney be allowed to take part in the trial, arguing that local election officials properly invalidated the signatures. And if New Approach could convince a judge that its initiative successfully crossed the signature threshold, the prosecutors wanted to challenge the basic legitimacy of legalizing drugs on the state level.
Despite its retrograde pearl-clutching, the affidavit was enough to sway the judge. He allowed the prosecutors' group to join the case. New Approach's legal team suddenly found itself preparing for a mismatched battle against both attorneys representing the Secretary of State and an outside counsel representing the prosecutors.
The trial began September 19. Fittingly, it took place on East High Street, in a courthouse presided over by Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green.
John Payne took the stand for eight hours over the course of two days, contending with dual legal teams bent on cross-examining him into the ground. But he managed to hold his own on the minutiae of signature collection.
New Approach entered its evidence: 2,246 signatures that it believed had been wrongly invalidated — providing enough of a margin to squeak by the 2,242-signature shortfall in District 2. But the opposing attorneys gradually whittled away at New Approach's evidence. Some signatures turned out to be duplicates, reducing the number to 2,219. That left New Approach Missouri short 23 signatures.
The two sides volleyed back and forth. Even during the trial, as New Approach's volunteers continued to search the petitions in the hope of uncovering more valid signatures, the attorneys for the Secretary of State tag-teamed with the attorney representing the prosecutors; they were able to cut 200 more signatures from New Approach's evidence.
By the second day, New Approach's attorneys were desperate. Their last hope was to convince Judge Green to accept 500 invalidated signatures from registered voters who had mistakenly signed the wrong county form.
The Missouri constitution gives registered voters the right to support ballot initiatives, New Approach's lawyers argued. The mere use of a different county's form shouldn't strip them of that right.
The lawyers cited a 2010 case in which Judge Green's predecessor on the Cole County bench, Paul Wilson, ruled that state laws disqualifying the signatures of properly registered voters placed an "unconstitutional burden" on the initiative process, and violated the constitutional rights of those signing petitions. However, that ruling was limited to a single case, and so getting Judge Green to apply it here would take some persuasion.
The group was confident, says Bertrand. Along with Mizanskey and other volunteers who filled the courtroom, she'd watched the trial and Payne's testimony with bated breath.
"I think our luck just ran out," she says.
In the end, Judge Green rejected New Approach's arguments about the "wrong county" signatures. And that was it. There was no time to appeal, because absentee voting had to begin in just seven days.
With the trial concluded, it was truly over for medical marijuana in Missouri in 2016. After all the time and money, the only thing left for the local activists was heartbreak — and questions both about what went wrong in the past and the way forward in the future.
Angelo Paparella says he's "sick to his stomach" over the demise of New Approach's ballot initiative.
"It had nothing to do with the appeal of the issue or the response of the public," he acknowledges. And yet from his office in Los Angeles, the president of the country's largest signature gathering firm insists that PCI doesn't deserve to be singled out for the campaign's failure.
This was no normal year, you see. This was the year of ballot initiatives run wild. "You can't look at Missouri without looking at what was going on nationally," Paparella says.
He's been working on marijuana ballot initiatives since 1996, when a California ballot proposition became the first successful medical cannabis measure passed at the state level.
The industry has been good to Paparella. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, Paparella's business raked in $28 million to run ballot campaigns from 2010 to 2014 alone. However, the 2016 election brought the initiative market to a near-breaking point. The Associated Press reports that more than 150 statewide initiatives were in play during the general election. California's ballot alone featured seventeen, of which PCI had contracts on four. Leading up to election day 2016, Paparella's company found itself juggling about two-dozen ballot initiatives in a handful of states.
"There was a strain on the entire system," he says. "Signature gathering was getting more difficult as the year went by."
Attracting competent collectors proved challenging. Competing initiative campaigns around the country were willing to shell out high prices per-signature. Collectors could play the field, picking and choosing the ballot measures that paid the highest dollar.
"It was something I've never seen before in the 30 years of doing this," Paparella says. "I did not at all anticipate how much was going on across the country, just absolutely unprecedented. That's what happens in politics; you don't expect it until it happens."
It's not like New Approach was throwing around chump change. According to campaign finance records, New Approach paid PCI a total of $1.3 million in 2016. All that to not make the ballot.
When asked about his April 28 email — the one revealing that District 2 was "in trouble" ten days before the deadline — Paparella retorts that the 20,000-signature deficit wasn't really the emergency that Payne makes it out to be. Those 20,000 signatures were supposed to function as a mathematical cushion to protect against the normal spread of lost signatures.
But even Paparella acknowledges that the collection operations hit snags as the deadline approached.
"Time is the biggest issue on signature gathering," he cautions. "Starting a petition drive as early as possible is key to minimizing risk."
Paparella's point could serve as a fitting epitaph on the gravestone of New Approach's ballot initiative. Just a few more days of signature collection could have yielded hundreds more valid signatures. Starting the signature-collection process in February, just three months before the deadline, proved to be a damning mistake.
But it wasn't just Missouri where collectors ran into trouble. Across the country, Paparella says, initiatives struggled to meet their goals. The market had reached a saturation point. It was common for groups of collectors to go into the field with three or four different petitions, hoping to get voters to sign several at one time.
It's worth noting that PCI wasn't directly hiring its signature collectors. Larger firms like PCI tend to manage the big-picture strategy while turning to medium-sized contractors to handle the collectors. And even then, those contractors may turn around and hire smaller companies to deploy the actual signature collectors across a state.
Brian Meeter runs one of those small signature-collection firms, based in Jacksonville. Meeter and his crew of about dozen collectors were hired by Michigan-based company, Elite Campaigns Inc., which was coordinating signature-collection in parts of Missouri under PCI's direction.
Meeter and his crew were first deployed to District 7. (He was among the collectors arrested for trespassing in the Joplin DMV on April 28.) Meeter was then called into District 2 to bolster the ranks as the deadline approached.
Although he avoided additional run-ins with the law, Meeter says District 2 was a headache all its own.
"We need a location where we can work where we don't get chased off," Meeter says. "In District 2, we came in at the last minute and we didn't have a lot of choices where we were working around. There were no public spaces, so we were working strip malls and gas stations. It's hard to find registered voters unless you go to their house. It needed to be managed differently; we should have started in District 2 as a door-to-door campaign."
PCI had been one of several bidders for the New Approach contract. The firm came highly recommended by the Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug reform group which used its political arm to throw $390,000 into New Approach's coffers.
It wasn't a recommendation the group made lightly. PCI's Paparella and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann go way back.
"We've worked with him since the first medical marijuana initiative in 1996," says Nadelmann. "I've been involved in 30 or 40 ballot measures, and Angelo was probably involved in a third of those campaigns, maybe more."
The failure in Missouri was out of character for PCI, says Nadelmann. For now, he can't say how Drug Policy Alliance will spread its contributions in the 2018 election, but he believes that Missouri is on the right track.
"Missouri is ready," Nadelman says. "The public opinion is there. If you can put more or less the same initiative on the ballot, do it. I'll try my best to help you guys, but folks in Missouri have to step up."
The weekend after the election, about 60 marijuana activists gather in a University of Missouri-Columbia auditorium for the 2016 Missouri Cannabis Conference. The atmosphere is tinged by the bitterness of defeat. There had been time, months ago, when these attendees had assumed the conference would be victory lap commemorating the state's brand-new medical marijuana law.
Instead, the conference has become a wake.
During a panel discussion assembled to dissect the missteps of New Approach initiative, John Payne fields the question burning in everyone's mind: Why did we fail?
"There were two clear factors," Payne says. First was the matter of timing. New Approach had initially targeted September 2015 to begin collecting signatures, but the group had gotten tangled up in negotiations with a potential donor, a wealthy lawyer named Brad Bradshaw. According to Payne, Bradshaw wanted steep taxes on retail sales of medical marijuana, something New Approach's organizers found unacceptable. The two sides never found a middle ground, but the delay kept New Approach from filing its initiative until November 2015, and signature collection didn't begin until late January 2016.
"That lost us two months of signature gathering time," Payne tells the audience. "If we had had that extra two months, I have absolutely no doubt that we would have been able to qualify for the ballot."
The other factor, of course, was that signature collectors bungled their jobs by over-collecting in District 1, putting District 2 deep into the red before the deadline.
"We are going to reexamine who we hire as the signature gathering firm," Payne says, responding to a question from an audience member. "I don't know exactly whom that might be, but we are going to file a petition for 2018 in the next few days."
If the implication wasn't clear, Payne later spells it out in conversation with attendees: PCI will not be getting the job.
But is a 2018 ballot initiative the way to go? Payne and other organizers answer yes, unless something unexpected happens in the Missouri legislature. In 2016, two watered-down medical marijuana bills failed to pass the House, and any lawmaker attempting to push a bill will likely run into similar opposition from the conservative, law-and-order types that currently rule the legislature. Legalization will almost certainly rest on another initiative and all it entails.
"It is not our ideal," Payne says of the plan to target 2018 for a follow-up initiative. "But it is certainly a winnable election."
Among the conference attendees, the prevailing opinion is that PCI's collectors screwed up the signatures in St. Louis County, but that New Approach deserves some blame for failing to mobilize its grassroots volunteers and leaving signature collectors with just three months to get the job done.
"It's not just on PCI and not just on New Approach," says Damien Johnson, a St. Louis cannabis activist with the Greater St. Louis chapter of NORML. Johnson collected signatures for PCI during the campaign. "The only thing that a petitioning company can guarantee is that you're going to get signatures. But they cannot guarantee success. That depends on how many volunteers help, and that depends on how much time you give them."
Right now, Missouri's marijuana activists have all the time in the world. Five cannabis initiatives have already been filed with the Missouri Secretary of State, including a slightly tweaked version of New Approach's 2016 initiative.
Toward the end of the conference, Jeff Mizanskey addresses the quarter-full auditorium. He's an emotional speaker, and his eyes are soon wet with tears. Before him are the same people who wrote letters and called legislators on his behalf while he was in prison. He owes much to Missouri's cannabis activists.
"I've heard a lot about unity," he says. "Well I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for unity. If it wasn't like that I would still be locked up in prison."
For Mizanskey and others, passing a medical marijuana initiative does more than just help those suffering chronic pain or illness. Medical marijuana is a stepping stone to broader legalization and reform, and ultimately the end to the drug war. Mizanskey's dream is to see Missouri's prisons emptied of non-violent drug offenders. That's why he continued to wave that banner at cars in Ballwin. It's why he continues to fight for legal weed, even though his parole restricts him from smoking the stuff himself.
"We had it, people," Mizanskey says to the crowd, nearly shouting. He asks them to get out on the streets, to bring in thousands of extra signatures in 2018.
"We had it in our fingers," he says. "Let's not lose it again."
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