Missouri state lawmakers must act now on adult-use cannabis legalization or risk having their hands tied should an initiative petition change the state Constitution.

That was the bottom line from Rep. Ron Hicks, a St. Charles County Republican, when he presented his legislation during a hearing before House Public Safety Committee members on March 8. Several Missourians testified to voice their support of the bill, which Hicks filed last month.

Titled the Cannabis Freedom Act, House Bill 2704 aims to legalize the possession and personal use of cannabis for those 21 and older, allow for home cultivation of up 12 mature plants, and tax cannabis sales at a rate not to exceed 12%, among other provisions, according to a summary of the 74-page legislation.

In addition, cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, processors and distributors would not be subject to special zoning requirements or licensing fees under the legislation.

The main reason Hicks said Missouri state lawmakers need to act now is so they can control any forthcoming legalization parameters.

“I don’t want to take anything away from the initiative petition process, but we have a medical marijuana industry in our state right now due to the initiative petition process,” he said during the hearing. “I’m sure every single one of you sitting here has received some type of an email or has heard from somebody in this state about the rollout of that program, whether it was dishonest or not fair to someone or it was rolled out wrong, or whatever the issue.

“But the bottom line is, no matter what those issues are, we as body cannot fix them. It was done through the initiative petition process, and we know how that works. It was placed in our Constitution, which is something I don’t think any of you are going to want to tackle. I know I don’t want to go against our Constitution and against the will of the people.”

That timeline to act ends when the Missouri General Assembly adjourns no later than May 30.

On a similar timeline, there are three adult-use ballot initiative campaigns in Missouri that have until May 8 to submit 160,199 valid signatures to pose a constitutional amendment to voters in the November 2022 election.

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One Missourian who testified in support of Hicks’ bill during the March 8 committee hearing spoke out against one of those initiatives.

Christina Thompson, of advocacy group ShowMe Canna-Freedom, implicitly said she opposed the initiative sponsored by Legal Missouri 2022 because she claimed it would create a monopoly for businesses already operating in the state’s medical cannabis program.

“Without this legislation, our Constitution will be corrupted for profit by the ballot initiative Legal Missouri 2022,” Thompson said. “This is the same group that designed the broken medical marijuana program, and they want to write another violent and subversive business monopoly into our state Constitution. I say monopoly because this initiative eliminates nearly all competition through constitutionally protected license caps.”

According to Legal Missouri 2022’s website, the group’s initiative seeks to create new business licenses to broaden industry participation by small business owners and among disadvantaged populations, including those previously convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses.

However, Thompson claimed adult-use licenses created under the initiative would go straight to established medical cannabis businesses.

While introducing his bill to the committee on Tuesday, Hicks expressed a lack of confidence in the signature-gathering process for ballot initiatives.

“Let’s be honest here: Sometimes [citizens] don’t even know what they’re signing,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t even know what they’re signing. But with this [bill], we know exactly what we’re doing. We put our hands on it. We asked for the citizens of Missouri to help us and put their hands on it. And that’s what I’ve done with this.”

Hicks also pointed to the criminal justice reform side of rolling out an adult-use program.

Any person who was convicted of a nonviolent cannabis-related offense would be able to petition the court to have that offense expunged, according to H.B. 2704’s summary.

Testifying in support of the bill on Tuesday was Eric McCauley, of Columbia, Mo., who was sentenced in 2012 to 23 years in prison for cannabis and money-laundering felonies. He served more than 12 of those 23 years incarcerated, before a federal judge granted his compassionate release last June.

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“I’m really fortunate to be here today,” McCauley said. “I’m here in support of all of those still doing time for cannabis and their children.”

McCauley’s son was at the hearing.

“I’ve had to fight back tears ever since I turned around and seen the people behind me that were in opposition to [the bill],” he said. “I hope they’re not just in opposition to it because they want to keep a monopoly on this industry.”

McCauley said he met some of the most intelligent people in his life who were also behind bars for nonviolent cannabis convictions. Many of those people didn’t have access to opportunities like going to college and simply chose different paths, he said.

“But people incarcerated for marijuana are not the same people incarcerated for other things,” McCauley said “Maybe you have an exception here or there, but there are some very good people in there. I was gone from Kindergarten until [my son’s] senior year. It was a long time, and he still turned out alright because his father isn’t really a bad guy and still helped to parent him from prison.”

As far as creating an inclusive industry, Hicks said the current version of his bill doesn’t include licensing caps because he wants to take a free-market approach to adult-use cannabis in Missouri.

“I want to keep it to the people of Missouri,” he said. “But I also want to do it with a regulatory framework so that we can keep it in a cage and it doesn’t run rampant.”

A common message among those who testified in support of the bill was that legalization in the state is coming, one way or another.