Cannabis enticed Marne Madison at an early age.
When she started college at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she learned how marijuana's active compounds alter the way the human brain receives chemical messages — and offer a range of potential health benefits.
Madison was fascinated. She'd long lived with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder — symptoms, she says, of growing up in north St. Louis. A gifted student, she felt like she didn't always fit in with her peers.
"I found myself to be a loner at a very young age as I navigated through early adulthood," Madison says.
But cannabis called to her. In April of 2019, she took a four-week course offered by Minorities for Medical Marijuana on how to enter the cannabis industry. After earning first place in a pitch competition upon the course's conclusion, she won a trip to Oaksterdam University, the world's first cannabis college, in Oakland, California. Madison also received free tuition for two certifications — one in cannabis science and the other in cannabis business. Equipped with these credentials on top of the bachelor's degree in accounting and finance she'd earned at UMSL, Madison believed she could break into the ultra-competitive medical-marijuana market.
"My goal was to have all this information and documentation to add onto my application," Madison says. "You would think I would be able to sell my expertise."
It didn't work. Madison's two applications to open a dispensary in St. Louis were both declined, despite exceeding minimum qualification requirements.
Since Missourians legalized medical marijuana in 2018, the program has come under fire for its handling of license applications.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services oversees the medical-marijuana program and began reviewing medical-marijuana license applications in August 2019. It received a deluge of submissions that exceeded the license caps allotted for the state's eight congressional districts. The state had set the cap for dispensaries at the minimum required under the new constitutional amendment: 24 dispensary licenses per district. More than 2,000 applications were submitted, but less than 360 were awarded.
"We just didn't meet the amount that was handed out in that area I applied in," Madison says.
Madison is a Black woman, and her rejection hardly appears to be a statistical anomaly. The first Black-owned dispensary in Missouri didn't open until earlier this year, nearly four years after medical marijuana became legal, and many critics contend that minorities are still underrepresented in the industry.
DHSS touts a fair and impartial scoring process, but its awarding of licenses has come under serious scrutiny. Rejected applicants have filed lawsuits saying they were unjustly denied (the state has settled some suits, including one alleging "pervasive disparities" in its assessments). In Kansas City, a federal grand jury sought records in a criminal probe apparently tied to former Missouri lawmaker Steve Tilley, now a lobbyist, whose clients include the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association, or MoCannTrade.
Now the same group that brought medical marijuana to electoral success in 2018, Legal Missouri, is going back to voters — seeking to double down on cannabis with a new initiative petition: Amendment 3.
In addition to legalizing cannabis use for residents ages 21 or older, the amendment would initiate "automatic expungements" for nonviolent marijuana-related criminal offenses for hundreds of thousands of Missourians.
Earlier this month, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft certified that Legal Missouri's petition qualified for the November 8 ballot. Legal Missouri, supported by Missouri's cannabis industry, spent at least $6 million gathering support for the measure.
The group estimates its petition, if passed, would bring in at least $40.8 million in tax revenue to the state, with funds going to veterans' services, drug-addiction treatment and the state's underfunded public-defender system.
On the surface, the petition is enticing. Activists and politicians have tried and failed for years to legalize weed in Missouri, and here is a measure that would seemingly allow pot lovers to use cannabis freely while bringing sweeping criminal-justice reform to boot.
Unsurprisingly, the petition has attracted hate from groups opposed to drug legalization. Joy Sweeney, who serves as the deputy director of training, technical assistance and community outreach for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, filed a lawsuit on August 19 with an anti-drug political action committee in Colorado to block the amendment from ballots. The lawsuit claims Legal Missouri did not gather enough signatures and that its proposal would change multiple sections of the state's constitution in violation of state law.
Missouri's governor also has slammed the amendment. In Kansas City last week, Governor Mike Parson said he thinks the proposal is "a disaster," and that it could be "a real trap."
"I guarantee you this has been written probably by lawyers ... and none of us in this state is going to be able to understand 450 pages of what it all means," Parson said. (The petition is actually 39 pages.)
But many cannabis advocates are the strongest critics to the amendment. Some claim the amendment's calls for criminal-justice reform are not as sweeping as they seem. Others fear the amendment would only benefit existing license holders, and its provisions to make licensure more equitable are, in their words, "bullshit."
"People do not know what they vote for," warns state Representative Ron Hicks, R-Defiance, who sponsored a bill to legalize adult-use marijuana that died in committee earlier this year. "I know that; I'm a legislator. I've used it to my advantage more than once, but now I'm telling the people that."
Hicks is sure the proposed constitutional amendment will pass, despite what he and a growing force opposed to it warn.
"All they want is legalization," he says of voters. "They don't care how they get it."
When Missouri's medical-marijuana program rolled out, the state initially received 582 applications for cultivation licenses, 1,218 applications for dispensary licenses and 430 applications to operate manufacturing facilities for marijuana-infused products. Ultimately, Missouri DHSS granted 60 cultivation licenses, 192 dispensary licenses and 86 licenses for product manufacturing facilities.
Many whom the state did grant licenses to were members of MoCannTrade, a political action committee that's been a staunch supporter of Legal Missouri. Under the new amendment, the same players would have first dibs on coveted recreational licenses.
Amendment 3 allows existing license holders to convert their medical licenses to recreational ones. Medical cannabis providers could immediately request the change after Amendment 3 goes into effect. They'd receive their licenses within 60 days at the most.
The catch: The state would only be required to issue the same number of recreational licenses as medical licenses, which have already reached their max.
"The medical-marijuana industry automatically gets put into the adult-recreational industry," Hicks says. "They don't have to apply for licenses or nothing. If they want it, they got it."
DHSS may "lift or ease" any license limit to "ensure a competitive market" while also preventing an over-concentration of facilities, the amendment states. However, with no written assurance that the state will do so, critics question whether anyone other than current medical-license holders could receive a recreational license.
"Big money, big lobbyists, big companies, they want to monopolize this corner of the market and allow no one into it," Hicks says.
Supporters of the amendment contend that allowing medical facilities to almost immediately convert their licenses will allow the recreational market to start as soon as possible.
When asked if he thinks the state would allow for more licenses as needed, Jack Cardetti, spokesman for MoCannTrade, says DHSS has been "very responsive." He adds that adult-use legalization could lead to more demand in an already-booming industry in Missouri. The state has three times more dispensaries than Illinois, where adult-use cannabis has been legal since January 2020.
"There's huge patient access here in Missouri, and it's only going to expand when [Amendment 3] passes," Cardetti says.
John Payne, campaign manager for Legal Missouri, is quick to point out that the campaign's petition provides "no cap" on the number of licenses, "only a minimum."
"The department could increase the licenses and has already," Payne says. "I expect they'll continue to do that through appeals granted."
Yet for many everyday Missourians, particularly minorities, doubt persists as to whether the industry will be more accessible this time around.
Marne Madison lost nearly $80,000 in pursuit of her medical cannabis dispensary. Each of her two license applications cost $6,000. Plus, she spent additional money on attorneys and consultants to beef the applications up. She traveled to Black-owned dispensaries in states where weed is legal to learn how to operate her own. She used her savings to lease an empty building to show she had a location ready for operation.
After her applications were denied, Madison gave up on Missouri. She now owns a dispensary in Oklahoma, which has adopted a "free market" approach to cannabis with no license caps.
She still lives in Missouri but travels as a cannabis business consultant. Even if she wanted to try again to operate a dispensary in her home state, her chances of securing a license are slim, with hundreds of appeals from rejected applicants still pending.
"My license is in appeal," Madison says, "but I no longer want to operate in the Missouri industry."
Legal Missouri has a plan to make licensure more equitable this time around.
To "level the playing field," its amendment provides a pathway for prospective business owners to start their own cannabis facilities without spending exorbitant amounts of money for the standard recreational licenses.
Applicants with proven financial or social disadvantages could apply for one of 144 licenses to operate "marijuana microbusiness facilities," which include dispensaries and wholesale operations for cultivating, processing and manufacturing marijuana or marijuana-infused products. Each congressional district would eventually get at least 18 of these microbusinesses if the amendment passes.
Unlike owners who would operate their businesses under standard recreational licenses, microbusiness owners can only hold one license at a time. Microbusinesses would also be limited to doing business only with other microbusinesses. Microbusiness dispensary owners could not cultivate and sell their own marijuana.
Legal Missouri touted the partial licenses as an unprecedented effort to "broaden participation in the legal cannabis industry by small-business owners and among historically disadvantaged populations" in a release upon the petition's certification.
Yet for some, these licenses are downright offensive.
"Amendment 3's microlicense proposal is a racist, Jim Crow, second-class licensing scam," says Eapen Thampy, founder of Missouri lobbying firm Great State Strategies and a longtime advocate for legal cannabis in Missouri.
The microbusiness licenses are "predatory" on financially disadvantaged Missourians who want to break into a competitive industry, Thampy says.
"What ends up happening is the existing industry players will find those applicants and say, 'Hey, we'll offer you capital at an exorbitant rate of interest, or we'll give you capital and we will get the management and operations contract for your microbusiness license,'" Thampy says.
In 2020, Thampy pled guilty to charges after he illegally helped to distribute marijuana from Oregon, where it was legal, to Missouri, where it was not. His conviction would not be eligible for expungement under Legal Missouri's proposal. Even so, he says his concern with the initiative is that it's "designed for the current industry to completely control and sustain its monopoly on the recreational market."
Hicks, Thampy and several more cannabis advocates who spoke with the RFT about the microlicenses wonder how anyone who qualifies for them would have a shot at success.
"They keep you in a box," Hicks says. "They only let you do your business within a certain parameter, unlike them."
Those who qualify for microbusiness licenses would have to prove significant financial disadvantages. Applicants qualify:
• if they have a net worth less than $250,000 and earned less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level in at least three of the past 10 years.
• if they, or a parent, guardian or spouse, have been arrested, prosecuted or convicted of a non-violent marijuana offense, as long as the offense didn't involve providing marijuana to a minor or driving under the influence. The arrest, charge or conviction must have occurred at least one year before recreational marijuana becomes legal.
• if they're a disabled veteran.
• if they live in a financially disadvantaged ZIP code where 30 percent or more of the population lives below the federal poverty level, where the rate of unemployment is 50 percent higher than the state average rate of unemployment, or where the rate of incarceration for marijuana-related offenses is 50 percent higher than the rate for the entire state.
• if they graduated from or lived in ZIP code with an unaccredited school district for three of the past five years.
Amendment 3 would require DHSS to appoint a "chief equity officer" to provide communities impacted by marijuana prohibition with education on the licenses and industry. It does not, however, provide enough institutional support for the license grantees to jumpstart their businesses, Madison argues. By contrast, programs, grants or classes on how to run a successful business would truly set up for success the minorities who've been systemically stomped on for generations, she says.
"They should want to have a mentorship program to help those that have been disenfranchised and excluded from these opportunities," Madison says.
Legal Missouri set up its microbusiness provisions with the help of the NAACP, and St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt supports the petition. He acknowledges that it's not perfect, but thinks "it's a first step."
"The first thing was to make sure they had the ability to enter the marketplace and enter it at a level which lines up with their income," Pruitt says. "That's first and foremost, and then as their business grows, they would then be able to convert their business into a regular license."
Institutional support is on the way, he adds. The NAACP is working with the national arm of Minorities for Medical Marijuana to bring assistance in the form of workshops to prepare eligible microbusiness owners for the industry.
But Pruitt says critics of the measure have "stereotyped" eligible applicants, as if they "have this mental incapacity or deficit" where they cannot start a small business without help.
"I believe we have plenty of craft growers who are out there growing a very good product," Pruitt says. "Unfortunately, they probably do it as a black market. But here they have the ability to take their product and do it in a legal way in areas that have been disenfranchised."
Even more concerning among critics is the timing of when the state would dole out microbusiness licenses.
Existing medical license holders would receive their recreational licenses within 60 days of requesting to convert. Microbusinesses, however, would have to wait a maximum of 300 days for the state to issue the first 48 licenses, according to the amendment. Licensing would continue at an aggregated pace until the state finally issued all 144 licenses — which could be up to 800 days after medical license holders had an opportunity to set up their recreational operations.
"Their 144 microbusiness licenses are a joke," Hicks says. "They are not going to help the minorities in this state."
Tom Gilio, founder of the Missouri Marijuana Legalization Movement, questions why the amendment carves out smaller operations for Missouri's downtrodden instead of standard licenses.
"Why not give them the same equal business?" Gilio says. "Or maybe give these people a bigger advantage?"
Adds Madison: "I don't think we should have any type of application process that goes beyond showing that you are able to operate a business."
For Brennan England, the racial equity provisions of Amendment 3 are "weak" and represent a missed opportunity.
England owns Cola Private Lounge, a members-only consumption facility and community space in south St. Louis. It's a place "where buds meet," per the lounge's slogan.
England grew up in south St. Louis. He had his first legal blunts at Cola in 2019 — a "liberating moment," he told the RFT in February. As president of the Missouri chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, he's spent years fighting for recreational weed in Missouri.
Yet England did not pursue a dispensary license when Missouri legalized medical cannabis. If Legal Missouri's amendment passes, as most think it will, England says he will not pursue a recreational license either.
"There's no real path for me to apply for a recreational license," he says. "That's part of the problem. Right out the gate, all of the existing medical license holders are the first ones to get adult-use licenses."
The petition has its flaws, England acknowledges, but he's not particularly for or against it. If voters pass it in November, he'll consider applying for a microlicense, despite his criticism of how it only allows access to one side of the business.
If he finds it worth the effort, he says, "Not only will I be trying for a microlicense, but I'll be developing with my organization an accelerator to help other minorities get the most out of this program as possible."
Earlier this year, Hicks sponsored a bill in the Missouri House that would have legalized adult-use cannabis under a "free market" approach. Most residents 21 or older would have qualified for a recreational marijuana license under Hicks' bill, which instilled no license caps and included no possession limits or penalties.
The bill also would have stripped the state's classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. Missouri currently lumps marijuana in the same drug classification as heroin.
House Bill 2704 never made it past the committee stage, however. According to Hicks, the bill was "blocked in every aspect."
"It was blocked by lobbyists, Steve Tilley's group," Hicks says. "Bottom line is they did not want HB 2704 to go legal because then they would lose out on their monopoly and all their money."
Tilley, a lobbyist for MoCannTrade and close friend of Governor Parson, represented clients who received medical licenses. He's also a lobbyist for Legal Missouri 2022, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Payne, with Legal Missouri, says MoCannTrade is one of many entities that supports Legal Missouri, but "lobbyists don't have a vote." He says Hicks' beef should be with his fellow Republicans, not the trade group.
Missouri's conservative-led legislature has consistently denied bills aimed at drug reform. In 2020, Representative Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, introduced a bill similar to Hicks' that also died in committee. Another bill sponsored earlier this year aimed to legalize certain psychedelics for medicinal use and saw a similar fate.
"If he wants to look for people that held it up, it's people in his own caucus," Payne says. "As I understand, they caucused up, took a vote, and didn't support bringing it to the floor."
Payne points to Hicks' bill's fate as an example of why Legal Missouri found it necessary to pursue legal marijuana through an initiative petition in the first place. He says asking Missouri's general assembly to legalize adult-use cannabis through legislation is simply "barking up the wrong tree."
"We endeavored to try that years ago, and we were met with a lot of hostility, and probably even more apathy," Payne says. "I don't think a whole lot has changed."
As a constitutional amendment, Legal Missouri's proposal would allow Missouri officials to maintain control over who sells marijuana in the state, even if the federal government were to legalize marijuana nationwide. If Missourians wanted to amend what's included in the proposal, they'd have to go through a costly initiative petition process and gather signatures from 8 percent of Missourians. The measure would then have to pass an election.
It's extremely difficult to change a constitutional amendment, according to Joani Harshman, a Missouri lawyer specializing in cannabis law. She says any law, no matter how well thought out, has problems once it's implemented.
"With adult-use legalization, I think it would be better if legislation were enacted versus a constitutional amendment because it's going to be much easier to make fixes on new problems," Harshman says.
But many argue that the only path to cannabis legalization in Missouri is by circumventing the state's assembly and getting measures on ballots through petitions.
"The legislature is never going to do this," says Cardetti, with MoCannTrade. "There wasn't even enough support among Representative Hicks' own caucus to get this to the floor, and that says nothing of the Missouri Senate where this has been a non-starter for literally the last decade."
Representative Tony Lovasco, R-O'Fallon, says he plans to propose legislation to counteract Amendment 3 if it passes in November. If Lovasco's measure passes through each house of the Missouri General Assembly, voters would then decide its fate in the next closest general election, unless a special election were called beforehand.
"There's a lot of problems with [the amendment] and it's going to be in the constitution — I'm not good with that," Lovasco says. "The constitution should be reserved for restraining governments. The statutes should really be where any regulation or restraints on people come from."
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the Waier family munches on takeout from Pizza-A-Go-Go in the hour before their garden supply business closes for the day.
Inside, the shop is small but packed with products. Shelves are stocked with bags of soil, peat moss and horticultural lighting. Latin music plays in the background as crickets chirp in the yard behind the store. It's warm outside, so Lila Waier opens the store's back door to reveal a lush garden of flowers, vegetables and herbs.
She and her husband, Dylan Waier, opened Grow Gear Garden Supply in Lindenwood Park last year after moving to Missouri from California in 2018. They have an 11-year-old son named D.J.
Cannabis has been a big part of the couple's lives for the past several decades.
"We were farmers before we were on the other side of this cash register," Dylan Waier says. "When I met my wife at 18, I took her straight to my indoors and outdoors [operation] in northern California."
After high school in 2005, Lila Waier moved to the country's largest cannabis-producing region, the Emerald Triangle in northern California, where medical cannabis was legalized in 1996. Her father, a veteran, grew his own weed to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lila and Dylan Waier cultivated cannabis in their own medical cannabis collective until about 11 years ago.
Their 50-acre operation was compliant with California state law, which at the time allowed growers in the Waiers' municipality to cultivate several hundred plants covered by doctors' scripts. But in 2012, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department stumbled onto their property and told them that what they were growing was illegal.
Caregiver laws often only offer a "figure it out in court" level of protection for cultivators, and the sheriff and district attorney on the Waiers' case were known for "shaking down growers," Lila Waier says. This year, those law-enforcement officials were accused of eradicating hundreds of marijuana farms to sell most of the seized marijuana on the black market.
Dylan Waier ended up serving 18 months in prison for his role in the cultivation operation. He believes Missouri is following a similar path to legalization as California, where small weed farms face extinction and people still receive charges despite legalization.
"We've lived through this, and it just doesn't pass the smell test," Waier says.
Adds his wife: "The initiative is less about your freedom to consume, grow and use marijuana, and more about who will have the right to sell it to you." Lila Waier chairs an advocacy and inclusion committee with We Are Jaine, a Missouri organization for women in cannabis. The group hasn't taken a public stance on Legal Missouri's petition, but Lila Waier is a fervent detractor.
The Waiers sold their pot to medical dispensaries in an area called Potter Valley, where Lila says the majority of residents cultivated and sold marijuana the same way her family did. Medical marijuana was the backbone of the region's economy for decades.
"It still is," she says, "but because of laws similar to Amendment 3, the small family growers are rapidly being pushed out by large-scale, multi-state operators who intentionally produce more than can be consumed and bottom out prices so low the small farms can't compete."
Amendment 3 allows adults to obtain a registration card to cultivate up to six mature marijuana plants, six immature plants and six clones at a time as long as the plants remain in locked places not visible to the public.
Missourians would also be allowed to purchase and carry three ounces or less of marijuana at a time. Smoking marijuana in a public place, other than "in an area licensed for such activity," could result in a civil penalty up to $100. Delivering marijuana to people younger than 21 would be prohibited.
Anyone who possesses or produces more than three but less than six ounces of marijuana would be subject to a civil infraction with a fine no larger than $250. On a second offense, the fine rises to $500. A third violation would result in a misdemeanor charge punishable by a fine no larger than $1,000 and forfeiture of the marijuana. Offenders have an option to perform community service in lieu of paying fines.
"After Amendment 3 passes, public use will still be prohibited, but it will be decriminalized," Cardetti says.
Lila Waier points out that local ordinances in St. Louis and Kansas City already allow for cannabis possession in small amounts.
"Everybody in those cities already [has] those freedoms," she says. "They don't need to vote this in to get them."
In December, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed a bill that allows city residents to possess two ounces of marijuana or less and grow up to six cannabis plants.
The ordinance prevents the possibility for citation, but prosecutors could still bring charges as long as marijuana possession conflicts with state and federal law. Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has said she will not prosecute suspects accused of possessing less than 100 grams.
Backers of Legal Missouri say Amendment 3 would provide clean slates to people with low-level, marijuana-related convictions. The measure would provide automatic expungement for such crimes — a criminal-justice reform that, if passed, would make Missouri the first state to do so.
Not all misdemeanors would be expunged, however.
The amendment allows anyone serving a sentence for a marijuana-related misdemeanor or certain felonies involving three pounds of marijuana or less to petition the court to vacate their sentence and expunge marijuana offenses from their record. Charges involving distributing to a minor or driving under the influence would not be eligible for expungement.
"Such expungement from all government records shall be granted for all of the person's applicable marijuana offenses, absent good cause for denial," the amendment states.
The phrase "good cause for denial" worries some critics who say Black Missourians have historically not received positive discretion from sentencing courts.
According to Joani Harshman, who serves on the board of the Canna Convict Project in addition to operating her cannabis-focused law practice, "good cause" is a common legal phrase. Its lack of specificity here sparks some concern, however.
"It certainly opens the door, but I think 'good cause' to deny an expungement is going to need some legal basis," Harshman says. "It would certainly be better if the language didn't make the expungement ruling so discretionary."
Offenders currently on probation or parole for misdemeanors or certain felonies will have their sentence automatically vacated, the petition states, as long as their crimes did not involve more than three pounds of marijuana, driving under the influence or distribution to a minor. Anyone no longer incarcerated or under supervision of the Department of Corrections would receive expungements within six months of Amendment 3's enactment if their crimes under Amendment 3 are no longer illegal.
These exclusions eliminate expungement qualification for a lot of people, according to Harshman.
"Many people that are serving time or have served time for a possession charge are serving time for more than three pounds," she says.
People with most classes of felonies would have to serve out the remainder of their sentence. The circuit courts would order their expungements at the end of a person's incarceration, including any supervised parole or probation.
Marne Madison has little faith the expungement provisions would serve minorities well.
"Most of the reasons you cannot be expunged seem to target the minority community," Madison says.
The ACLU documented disproportionate marijuana arrests in a 2020 report. It found that Black people are 2.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Missouri — even though their national usage rates are comparable.
National and state analysis has consistently shown that law enforcement stops Black drivers more than other motorists.
"In most instances in the Black community, someone is pulled over just by looking a certain way," Madison says.
In Oklahoma, Madison was granted a dispensary license after spending just $2,500 for her application — significantly less than the $80,000 she spent in her rejected Missouri bid. Oklahoma legalized medical marijuana in 2018 with one of the loosest markets in the country. The state recently had to place a moratorium on new licenses after a swarm of businesses flooded in.
Now based in Kansas City, Madison directs Exit Now, a minority-run nonprofit working to create equity in cannabis.
Exit Now hosts workshops on the decriminalization of cannabis and what expungement means for nonviolent marijuana offenders. The nonprofit has granted three students full-ride scholarships to Saint Louis University for the school's cannabis science operations program.
After the pitfalls she faced in Missouri, Madison hopes to use her experience and knowledge of the industry to help others.
"We want to make sure we make a community that looks like us," Madison says. "People who have been born and raised in this state, people who have owned their own farms, should have the opportunity to be inside the regulated cannabis industry."