Missouri marijuana legalization fight enters new arena with court challenge

Recreational marijuana has one more major hurdle to clear before landing on Missouri’s November ballot: a lawsuit challenging the vote’s legality.

The lawsuit, filed by substance abuse prevention activists, argues the citizen petition to put the issue to a public vote failed to amass enough signatures. It also claims the ballot question violates Missouri’s constitutional prohibition against measures containing more than a single subject, since the ballot question also asks whether to expunge nonviolent marijuna convictions.

Despite federal prohibitions against the use and sale of the drug – and growing expert warnings about the dangers of today’s high-potency cannabis products – 19 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, with seven of the 19 also erasing marijuana-related convictions from offenders’ records.

The lawsuit was filed against the Secretary of State’s office by Jefferson City resident Joy Sweeney of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, a group of community coalitions working to prevent substance use and abuse. She is joined by Colorado-based Protect Our Kids PAC, headed by Luke Niforatos. He is also the executive vice-president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a group formed to oppose the “commercialization and normalization of marijuana.”

Niforatos is a high-energy young man with an urgent mission – to halt the spread of commercialized marijuana, a drug he says is far removed from the “dime bags” of yesteryear. Experts say the potency of today’s cannabis is far higher than the strongest pot of the 1970s. 

Marijuana has been selectively bred to increase levels of THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, providing a more intense high – one that many physicians warn can be highly addictive. While marijuana in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s had THC concentrations around 4%, today’s plants commonly boast concentrations between 12% to as much as 25%.

Concentrations of THC in processed products can be exponentially higher still.

The last 10 years have seen a dramatic jump in industrial-level cannabis production, with the marketing apparatus of companies such as Altria, the former Phillip Morris cigarette company, backing it, Niforatos said in an interview with The Heartlander.

Legal Missouri, the organization that led the effort to put recreational marijuana on the ballot, has not released a comprehensive list of its major donors. But the total amount the group has spent in Missouri is just short of $6 million, according to reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Along with players from the world of high finance (George Soros) and big pharma (the former CEO of OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma), Silicon Valley tech giants are bankrolling many of these legalization efforts.

The promise of medical benefits from legalizing the compounds in cannabis has been hijacked by the recreational lobby, Niforatos says, using the medicinal angle to open the door to legalization in the public’s mind. Once the medicinal value has been established and efforts launched to enable physician-directed use, he says, recreational use petitions are simultaneously launched to take advantage of voter confusion, as many don’t realize the measures lead to dramatically different results.

Legal Missouri Campaign Director John Payne cites polling showing wide popular support for legalization. But, Niforatos notes, “Polling only shows high levels of support when no other alternatives are mentioned. Most people think of legalization as the only way to keep someone caught with a single joint out of prison on a possession charge. When other alternatives to full legalization are presented, voters overwhelmingly choose them.”

The mechanics of the recreational marijuana petition drive also have been challenged.

In order to qualify for the ballot, proposed constitutional amendments require enough registered voters’ signatures to equal 8% of the vote from the 2020 gubernatorial election in six of the state’s eight congressional districts.

Reporting from late July showed the campaign to be more than 2,000 signatures short of the mark.

Petition signatures are verified by local county clerks and election boards who cross-reference the information on the petition with the voter information held by the district. When the information doesn’t match, or the names are not found, a line is drawn through that entry on the petition, voiding it.

In the districts where the campaign met the mark, just 52.1% of submitted signatures were found to be valid. The lawsuit argues the pro-marijuana campaign simply didn’t submit enough valid, verifiable signatures.

However, the Secretary of State’s Office says it validated the appropriate number of signatures through its multi-step process whereby signatures are checked, double-checked and triple-checked for validity by multiple levels of election authorities. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office provided the below statement:

“Regarding the marijuana initiative petition, the signature numbers and the process speak for themselves. The individuals responsible for submitting this [initiative petition] met the constitutional requirements as required by statute, therefore Secretary Ashcroft certified Amendment 3 to the ballot.  The secretary followed the law and fulfilled his statutory duty and stands behind his certification.”

Legal Missouri challenged the count with the Secretary of State’s Office through a procedure not yet disclosed. The SOS then deemed the petition to have met the requirements to be placed on November’s ballot.

It is this undisclosed procedure that has prompted Sweeney’s lawsuit, along with the violation of the “single-subject” rule.

Since the proposed amendment not only legalizes marijuana for recreational use, but also orders an automatic expungement of criminal records for nonviolent marijuana-related convictions prior to the amendment, the lawsuit argues the single-subject rule has been broken.

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