Marijuana Ballot Initiatives

Missouri Becomes the 21st State To Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Some reformers opposed the initiative, deeming it anti-competitive and needlessly prescriptive.


Missouri voters, who approved medical marijuana in 2018, went further on Tuesday by passing a ballot initiative that legalizes cannabis for recreational use. With 89 percent of ballots reported, 53 percent of voters had said yes to Amendment 3, which amends the Missouri constitution to "remove state prohibitions on purchasing, possessing, consuming, using, delivering, manufacturing, and selling marijuana for personal use" by adults 21 or older. The initiative also "allow[s] persons with certain marijuana-related non-violent offenses to petition for release from incarceration or parole and probation and have records expunged."

Prior to this year's elections, 37 states had approved marijuana for medical purposes, and 19 of them also had legalized recreational use. The Missouri results raise the latter number to 21, since Maryland voters also approved recreational legalization on Tuesday.

Missouri's initiative, which was opposed by some reformers who deemed it anti-competitive and needlessly prescriptive, permits public possession of up to three ounces and home cultivation of up to six flowering plants. It also allows adults to share up to three ounces "without consideration." Those provisions take effect a month from now. Public consumption will remain illegal, as will driving "under the influence of marijuana," with the stipulation that convictions not be based "solely" on the presence of THC or THC metabolites in the driver's blood.

Amendment 3 charges the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services with licensing and regulating commercial production and distribution. The department is required to begin accepting license applications within nine months of the amendment's effective date, which is 30 days after the election. Regulators can limit the number of retail licenses, provided that at least 24 medical and recreational dispensaries are allowed in each congressional district. Licenses will be awarded based on "a lottery selection process," with preference given to current medical marijuana providers. Recreational sales will be subject to a 6 percent tax, plus local taxes up to 3 percent.

Amendment 3 was supported by a wide range of labor, civil liberties, and drug policy reform groups. Opponents included Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who called it an incomprehensible "disaster"; St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, who supports legalization but deemed the amendment inflexible and inequitable; Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who argued that the issue should not be addressed through a constitutional amendment; the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which warned that the initiative would increase the number of dangerously stoned drivers on the road; the Missouri Catholic Conference, which said "marijuana legalization will negatively impact Missouri families"; the Missouri Constitutional Conservatives PAC, which said the amendment "would put critical race theory in the Missouri Constitution through the creation of a chief equity officer"; and the Missouri NAACP, which said the initiative's equity provisions were inadequate.

Several pro-reform critics objected to Amendment 3's limits on competition in the cannabis industry. "This initiative eliminates nearly all competition through constitutionally protected license caps," complained Christina Thompson of ShowMe Canna-Freedom. "Recreational licenses created under the initiative will go straight to established businesses as well, meaning instead of opening up more business opportunities for others, money only goes to those who are already profiting."

State Rep. Ashley Bland-Manlove (D–Jackson County) likewise noted that "80 percent of the licenses will go to persons who already have a medical license," which "means nobody else new gets into this industry." Tim Gilio of the Missouri Marijuana Legalization Movement said "there is no reason why Missouri entrepreneurs, and particularly in minority communities, shouldn't have full access to commercial licensing opportunities."

According to a Ballotpedia tally, supporters of the initiative raised nearly $7 million, while opponents had reported no contributions as of late October. A mid-September SurveyUSA poll put support for the measure at 62 percent. Other polls conducted in September and October found that support fell short of a majority, but with substantial numbers of undecided voters, ranging from 10 percent to 17 percent

In September, state Rep. Ron Hicks (R–St. Charles County) introduced a legalization bill, the Marijuana Freedom Act, that he viewed as superior to Amendment 3. It did not include a limit on personal possession, and it would have allowed home cultivation of up to 12 plants. It envisioned "hospitality permits" allowing hotels, bars, and restaurants to "sell and serve marijuana or marijuana products in private events or venues."

Hicks noted Amendment 3's licensing restrictions and the penalties it prescribes for marijuana-related conduct that will remain illegal, such as public consumption, possession in excess of the new legal limits, possession by individuals younger than 21, and cultivation within public sight. "The governor, along with tens of thousands of Missourians, [has] expressed that the Amendment 3 campaign is a disaster," Hicks said. "Missourians don't want their Constitution used to sustain monopolies in the marijuana market, and they don't want criminal or civil penalties in the Constitution. Passing the Marijuana Freedom Act will ensure that this corrupt initiative is rejected by the voters."

Geoffrey Lawrence, director of drug policy at Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason), says Amendment 3 creates "a greater sphere of individual freedom," which is "always welcome." He adds that the measure's tax rate on retail marijuana sales is "less punitive than in other states," although "nothing prevents lawmakers from raising the rates proposed within ballot initiatives after the fact."

Lawrence sees "some shortcomings" in Missouri's initiative. "It would essentially lock up the adult-use market for existing holders of medical licenses so that others could never open a cannabis business and compete with those incumbent firms," he says. "It even includes language that anticipates an eventual interstate market following federal legalization but asserts that only those licensees will ever be able to sell legal marijuana in Missouri. It also enshrines within the state constitution new penalties for individuals who exceed the possession limit or who consume in public. As constitutional provisions, these penalties would be very difficult to change in the future."