On March 10, the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety held a hearing on H.B. 1659, which would legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Kelly (D – Columbia), introduced the bill and explained how he came to support legalization during his time as a judge. He explained that when handled all the domestic violence cases in Boone County, he would often find that officers were not available to respond to those calls because they were dealing cannabis offenses. He said that in all his time as a judge, he handed down thousands of sentences for cannabis offenses but doubted that he deterred a single person from smoking a single joint.
Show-Me Cannabis Regulation Board Chair Dan Viets was up next, and he pointed out the hundreds of millions of dollars in law enforcement savings and new tax revenue that the state could realize if it passed this legislation and pointed out that use rates have not increased in states that have decreased penalties on cannabis possession.
Then, Brandy Johnson and Heidi Rayl grabbed everyone’s attention with their emotional testimony on the need for medical cannabis. Brandy and Heidi are both mothers of boys — Tres and Zayden, respectively — who suffer from extreme forms of epilepsy and experience dozens or even hundreds of seizures every day. Tres and Zayden are both prescribed to numerous, powerful pharmaceuticals to control their seizures, but a high-CBD strain of medical cannabis could likely treat those seizures far more effectively and with far fewer side effects. Unfortunately, it is illegal in Missouri.
Many other witnesses testified in favor of different aspects of the bill. Police chief Larry Kirk spoke on how prohibition wastes law enforcement resources; Dr. Gil Mobley explained to the committee that the science showing cannabis is medically efficacious is sound and that it is less dangerous than alcohol; Show-Me Cannabis Regulation board member Amber Langston told the committee about the benefits of industrial hemp; Daryl Bertrand described how medical cannabis saved his life, until a SWAT raid left him and his wife felons; Bonnie Green discussed the need for expungement and the disproportionate impact of arrests and incarceration on the African American community, which police sergeant Gary Wiegert reiterated; and Ken Wells concluded by discussing how he uses cannabis to help treat his seizures.
All told, there were ten witnesses in favor of the bill and five opposed, three of whom came from law enforcement. Despite the overwhelming show of support for the bill, many members of the committee indicated that they opposed full legalization.
However, even many conservative representatives endorsed the idea of medical cannabis in some form — an idea that the legislature would not even grant a hearing last year. I think the ground shifted on cannabis policy in the Missouri state legislature last night, and medical marijuana became the new middle ground.
When I first started going down to Jefferson City regularly last year, any discussion of reform was considered radical, and many legislators would cross to the other side of the hall rather than talk to me about it. Now, almost every legislator I talk to seems to acknowledge that our laws need some reform and that cannabis has medical properties.
In fact, a few legislators seemed indignant that they weren’t discussing a purely medical cannabis bill. In my testimony, I reminded them that we don’t decide what committees hear which bills or set the hearings for them. However, we support the medical cannabis bills currently in the legislature, which have not yet been heard, and will gladly organize testimony for those hearings if and when they occur.
We still have a long way to go, and we still face long odds to pass any reform bill this year. But, after that hearing, I believe most legislators will acknowledge that something needs to change. Finding a proposal that can garner majority support from both houses of the legislature will be substantially more complicated, but we have their attention.
As I wrote last week, we can create a greater sense of urgency among legislators by applying more public pressure, and the way to do that is to spread the word far and wide. We need to run radio ads, reserve billboards, and organize more parents like Heidi and Brandy to speak to their legislators!
I urge you to watch the video of last night’s hearing — particularly Brandy’s and Heidi’s testimony from 41:00 into the video until the 1:08:00 mark — and you will see how dramatically the tide has turned on the issue. We have gone from a legislature that was unwilling to even consider medical marijuana last year to one in which most members of one of the most conservative committees in the House repeatedly stated that they support some form of medical cannabis. It’s a seismic shift.