Missouri’s Marijuana Legalization Efforts Should Learn From the Legal Hemp Industry

click to enlarge In 2018, the New Approach Missouri campaign won the support of 66% of Missouri voters to put a medical marijuana program into the state’s Constitution - LEAH SHAFFER
In 2018, the New Approach Missouri campaign won the support of 66% of Missouri voters to put a medical marijuana program into the state’s Constitution

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Marijuana reform in Missouri has been a hotly contested topic since at least 2016, as thousands of entrepreneurs and commercial entities have competed for access to commercial licensing.

In 2018, the New Approach Missouri campaign won the support of 66% of Missouri voters to put a medical marijuana program into the state’s Constitution. In 2020, controversy erupted as roughly 85% of 2,200 medical marijuana commercial licenses applications were denied. Some applicants lost tens of thousands of dollars in application fees to the state and hundreds of thousands of dollars to consulting firms promising top-tier application writing services.

To me this whole system seems irredeemably inefficient and corrupt. Worse, the New Approach Missouri campaign — now calling itself Legal Missouri 2022 — is proposing a similar approach to recreational marijuana licensing.

While others have discussed the licensing issues at length, I have an unique perspective on why these approaches are nonsensical — I’m licensed to legally grow cannabis in Missouri under the agricultural hemp law passed in 2018.

Under federal law, hemp is cannabis with less than 0.3% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (aka delta-9 THC), and marijuana is cannabis with more than 0.3% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. In 2018, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the federal Controlled Substances Act and created a regulatory architecture that allowed states to run their own hemp programs under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 2019, Missouri opened their hemp program and currently there are more than 300 licensed hemp producers and manufacturers in the state of Missouri. Most farmers currently are producing hemp flower for cannabidiol (CBD) or other exotic cannabinoid products, although I believe the long term potential for this crop to be in industrial seed and fiber products.

Because the federal Controlled Substances Act does not prohibit isomers (identically composed compounds differentiated by molecular structure) of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, a federally legal market has sprung up for delta-8 and delta-10 tetrahydrocannabinol as the 2018 Farm Bill legalized products derived from hemp (both delta-8 and delta-10 THC can be created by a chemical conversion from CBD).

Hence Missouri already has legal THC, albeit delta-8 or delta-10 THC products, pervasively available at headshops, convenience stores and other retail venues. Here in Kansas City, a retailer in the Westport district openly markets “Legal THC – No medical card needed – Ask us how.”

Delta-8 and delta-10 THC products exhibit extremely similar effects to the currently prohibited delta-9 THC, including intoxication for those who haven’t built up a significant tolerance. Yet there are no significant concerns with impaired driving, licensing, or any other issues associated with the controversy over legalizing marijuana & delta-9 THC.

Opponents of free market marijuana licensing cite Oregon and Oklahoma’s saturated marijuana markets as cautionary tales against unfettered marijuana commerce. However, this situation is solely a function of federal prohibition, and once Congress passes federal marijuana legalization these issues will vanish.

Currently, Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace of South Carolina has proposed such reforms with the States Reform Act. In the Senate, Democrat Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed similar policies. Hopefully, there will be a bipartisan compromise that emerges so that the federal government will finally get out of the way on these issues.

In Missouri, the experience of our hemp farmers has shown us that it’s possible to produce and retail intoxicating delta-8 and delta-10 THC products without controversy or public safety issues. However, special interest groups claiming to represent the marijuana industry are currently spending millions of dollars over competing visions of marijuana licensing through the ballot initiative process.

From an equity standpoint, both current marijuana legalization ballot initiative campaigns want to create new possession limits and possession charges, including felonies. One campaign even wants to create a constitutional mandate that marijuana felons serving time in prison can’t be released or have their offenses expunged until their sentences have been fully served, while a small group of commercial marijuana licensees make tens of millions of dollars a year in a market where new entrants can’t enter in any meaningful way.

These are all weighty issues and deserve consideration, but the special interests running ballot initiative campaigns have no interest in hearing perspectives from stakeholders with differing opinions like mine. However there is an alternative — the elected representatives of the people of Missouri can consider these issues and act in the best interests of Missouri ahead of any of these flawed proposals making the November 2022 ballot.
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