In 2018, patients rejoiced when Missouri voters approved legislation allowing for the production and use of medical marijuana. But several questions remained unanswered, among them the question of how the change in law would affect Missourians with prior convictions for cannabis possession. Nearly two years later, lawmakers and citizen groups have outlined several potential paths forward, but the fate of Missourians who were prosecuted under marijuana prohibition remains unclear.
In 2020, New Approach Missouri advanced a petition for the legalization of recreational marijuana use which included a provision that would allow non-violent marijuana offenders to apply for reductions and/or total expungement of their sentences. But many cannabis advocates suggested the legalization push was premature and poorly conceived. Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the petition-gathering process, and New Approach’s recreational pot measure will not be on the 2020 Missouri ballot. So where does that leave Missourians who may be serving time for non-violent offenses related to marijuana? About the same place they were two years ago.
In the meantime, legislators have proposed a handful of bills (notably, HB 1385 and HB 2060) that would allow qualifying MMJ patients to apply to have marijuana convictions erased from their records. But none of the various bills has made it to floor debate, the principal bills cited above having been stuck in committee since May 2020. Some prison reforms signed into law in July of 2019 granted circuit courts the right to create special drug treatment courts and gave prosecutors the authority to create diversion programs to keep drug offenders out of prison. The bills will allow certain non-violent offenders to apply for parole, but do not specifically address marijuana offenders.
Despite the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use, prohibition proceeds apace. As recently as 2019, as many as 10% of arrests in the state were for marijuana possession. An April 2020 report from the ACLU of Missouri shows that over the past decade, black Missourians were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. In 2018, Missouri had the 11th highest rate of arrests for marijuana possession nationally. During that same year, law enforcement officials nationwide made more arrests for marijuana than for all violent crimes combined.
One in three Americans has a criminal record, and research has shown the cascading effects that the stigma of a criminal record can have on “income, savings and assets, education, housing, and family strength and stability,” over a period of several generations. Currently, medical marijuana businesses in Missouri are legally barred from hiring or contracting with convicted felons, making rehabilitation through work in the industry a practical impossibility. With medical marijuana moving ahead, and recreational marijuana on the horizon, Missouri will soon face tough questions about how it treats non-violent marijuana offenders.