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Former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff Slams Amendment 3

Wolff: Legalize recreational marijuana in Missouri? Yes. By voting for Amendment 3? No.

Originally published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at

Amendment 3 on the November ballot is a constitutional amendment to make it legal to cultivate, process, and sell marijuana for adult recreational use in Missouri. Like many, perhaps most Missourians, I want marijuana to be legal and regulated reasonably. But this amendment has flaws; I can’t get to “yes.”

Legalizing and regulating marijuana is a task for legislators, deliberating on the policy and practical details, as they should, on what is best for the people they represent. This year the task falls on voters because of our representatives’ inaction.

Be wary. Special interests that write a ballot initiative put up the money for the campaign. Amendment 3 is 39 pages dealing in detail with licensing and regulating. It contains some relief for those who have prior pot convictions. But it perpetuates the game of winners and losers that the state created after voters approved the 2018 medical marijuana proposition, and adds new penalties that may fall most heavily on low-income people.

When the state limits the number of sellers, basic economics teaches that the prices eventually go up. If there is no artificial state-imposed limit on the number of licenses, some of the businesses will fail. That’s how capitalism works. When the number is limited, licenses seem to be awarded not on the basis of what you know but whom you know.

When there is less than a one-in-six chance of getting a medical marijuana license, perhaps the applicant’s best bet is to hire the best-connected help available. For many of the successful applicants, having well-connected help seems to have increased their chances of getting licensed. Successful medical applicants, as well as hundreds of unsuccessful applicants, spent many thousands of dollars each pursuing licenses. Hundreds of appeals are still pending, diverting funds from the state and the applicants to cover legal expenses. Parson, whose administration managed the medical marijuana roll-out, said recently that this year’s Amendment 3 would be a “disaster” for the state. Hmm.

While many well-intentioned Missourians support Amendment 3, most of the money for the campaign comes from the successful medical marijuana applicants and their financial backers from around the country. This year’s Amendment 3 would guarantee that current licensees would have licenses for adult-use marijuana long before anyone else can enter the field.

The current licensees — the insiders’ cartel — are doubling down by their sponsorship and support of Amendment 3 so that they can dominate the potentially far more lucrative adult-use market.

Besides fairness, there is a racial impact. Enforcement of marijuana laws has been plagued by racial disparities since the War on Drugs began 50 some years ago.

A review of the records shows that only one or two Missouri licenses out of about 300 or so went to African Americans, who were targets of the War on Drugs. The insiders’ advantage will undoubtedly perpetuate this disparity.

The ballot proposition does provide some expungement for marijuana offenses and supports some worthwhile, if meager, criminal justice reform. But it establishes new penalties for marijuana in the state constitution, which is a weird place for them.

You don’t need a constitutional change to do the good things in Amendment 3: The Legislature can and should regulate marijuana for adult use through an agency charged with granting licenses to those who qualify and denying or removing licenses from those who do not, and setting rules for those who wish to grow their own. The Legislature can and should set up an expedited process for expungement of marijuana criminal records. The Legislature should provide additional funding for public defenders, which Amendment 3 does. Whatever criminal penalties still needed should be set by the Legislature.

Ask your legislators to do their jobs. If they won’t, perhaps it would be preferable to change legislators than to change the constitution.

Amendment 3 gives the public the legal marijuana it may want. But is putting a favored few in the driver’s seat — in the state constitution — the right way to legalize it?

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