Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Yes, We Cannabis: A grassroots movement aims to legalize pot in Missouri

A grassroots movement aims to legalize pot in Missouri.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 7:07 AM

Missouris new cash crop?
  • Missouri's new cash crop?
Amber Langston has one message for Missouri voters: "The sky is not going to fall if we legalize it."

Of course, Langston, Western Region director for the statewide pro-legalization group Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, admits that she’s facing a significant challenge. The group needs 150,000 signatures, from all over the state, by May 4 to put its initiative on the November ballot. And this isn’t some wimpy, politically palatable “decriminalization” movement that would reduce penalties for possession. Show-Me Cannabis Regulation wants across-the-board legalization.

"It's going to have to be available to adults 21 and over, period," she says.
Under the proposed law, residents could legally burn blunts at home and pop into a store to stock up on the kind bud when they run out (and maybe pick up some Funyuns). And with each marijuana purchase, the state’s coffers would swell with fat stacks of pot tax — up to $100 a pound. People who are drinking age and older would also be able to grow 10-foot-by-10-foot plots to cultivate their own supplies.

Langston has worked on decriminalization efforts in Columbia, Missouri, and in California, and cites all the usual arguments for legalizing pot: It would eliminate a criminal market, free up police resources to battle more serious crimes, and generate tax revenue (maybe tens of millions) to fill budget holes.

No state has wanted to be the first to officially thumb its nose at federal drug policy, but Show-Me Cannabis Regulation’s organizers believe that public opinion has shifted in its favor. The organization is trying to capitalize on an October 2011 Gallup poll indicating that, for the first time since polling on the issue began in 1969, more than half of Americans approved of marijuana legalization.

"In the Midwest, it's 54 percent for full legalization," Langston says, citing the same poll. And that’s why she and her colleagues have decided to mobilize their 1,000-plus volunteers and go directly to voters rather than through the legislative process.

"Fiscally conservative Republicans get this issue. Economists get this issue," she says. "There's still a fear-based approach coming from, I suppose, social conservatives. But we really hope to open that conversation up."
She adds that the idea is popular in farm country because it would boost the market for agricultural hemp, an industry with a long history in the state. "In the rural parts, people are especially excited. You know, they need jobs," she says.

The populist route might indeed prove swifter and surer than legislation. In Kansas, state Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City) has introduced Senate Bill 354 (the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act), which would legalize the limited use of marijuana for medical purposes, allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients of any age. The Senate’s Public Health and Welfare Committee (chaired by Topeka Republican Vicki Schmidt) refused to hear the bill, so Haley took it the Committee on Federal and State Affairs, where it remains idle.

Nonetheless, Haley calls cannabis "one of the largest cash crops in Kansas" and says he sees medical marijuana as a first step toward broader decriminalization in his state.

"Knowing that many people use it not only for medicinal [reasons] but for recreational use, it is time to get our collective heads out of the sand," Haley tells The Pitch. But it is an election year, and Haley thinks that might be why his bill has met stiff opposition.

"A couple of people are utilizing this to un-elect me," Haley says, "in part because it’s a soft-on-crime … or a 'he's opening us up to the devil's weed' kind of issue." Haley says he'll continue to advocate for decriminalization legislation as long as he’s in Topeka and as a private citizen. The normalization of marijuana has arrived, he says. "I do predict that the use not only for medicinal but for recreational use of marijuana in just a very few years will no longer be an issue," he says.

Meanwhile, Show-Me Cannabis Regulation’s work is far from done. Since the ballot petition was approved last November, the group has piled up only about 20,000 signatures. The group needs more than six times that number in just less than two months, but the math doesn’t daunt Langston. She recalls a co-worker’s calming words during a recent stressful campaign moment.

"He said, 'No matter how bad we mess up, we cannot stop marijuana legalization,'" she says.

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