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Marijuana isn’t a medical treatment or moneymaker for Missouri, but that could change after 2018

Colorful photos hang on the walls at HCI Alternatives in Collinsville. The marijuana dispensary is set up like a typical doctor's office.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Colorful photos hang on the walls at HCI Alternatives in Collinsville. The marijuana dispensary is set up like a typical doctor's office.

A small building nestled off Interstate 70 in Collinsville looks like a typical doctor’s office, until you get inside and look up close at the colorful artwork on the walls. They’re portraits of marijuana plants.

At this dispensary, about 12 miles east of the Missouri border, patients and the medical staff have lively conversations about the various medical marijuana products available, from brownies and blueberry-flavored candies to transdermal patches.

Illinois is among the close to 30 states that allow medical marijuana; at least seven states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized pot altogether — and make good money off of it. In Missouri, there are at least 22 ballot proposals aimed at persuading voters in 2018 to join that growing club of pro-pot states, an effort similar to a successful ballot drive last year in Arkansas.

But all of this comes as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for a crackdown on the growing number of states that appear to be ignoring the federal ban on pot. Here’s the landscape:

Illinois’ program a model for Missouri

All of the initiative-petition proposals in Missouri face a tough challenge. Because all seek to amend the state constitution, they’ll need roughly 190,000 signatures from registered voters in at least six congressional districts in order to get on the 2018 ballot.

At the moment, the group that has the best chance is New Approach Missouri. It has raised the most money for its initiative petition drive to legalize marijuana for the treatment of dozens of diseases.St. Louis Public Radio's Jo Mannies looks at citizen-backed proposals to make Missouri more like Illinois when it comes to legalizing some form of marijuana use.

Lisa Hickman used to have trouble walking due to multiple sclerosis. She said using marijuana products has changed her life.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lisa Hickman used to have trouble walking due to multiple sclerosis. She said using marijuana products has changed her life.

That’s akin to what Illinois has, with the marijuana doled out at 53 state-approved dispensaries to about 21,000 patients. Lisa Hickman is among those patients. She  moved from southeast Missouri to Illinois solely to gain legal access to marijuana for her multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease. She said pot has transformed her life.

“When I first started coming in, I was in a full walker,” Hickman said, as she sat in the dispensary waiting room. “Now, I don’t hardly use my cane anymore.”  

Obtaining the marijuana products isn’t cheap. By law, Illinois’ patients are allowed 2.5 ounces of cannabis every 14 days, which can cost $700. Scott Abbott, chief operating officer for HCI Alternatives, which operates the Collinsville and Springfield dispensaries, emphasizes that insurance usually doesn’t cover the cost of marijuana products.

Abbott’s not who you think would be involved with medical marijuana. He’s a retired colonel in the Illinois State Police and didn’t support such a program initially. It wasn’t until HCI chief executive Chris Stone talked to him about how its distribution could be operated as a legitimate and legal business to help sick people.

Abbott still emphasizes that “it needs to be regulated” to prevent abuse, but he knows the benefits.

“I’ve seen first-hand the change in people,” Abbott said. “I know there is a benefit to it, and people should be allowed to have a choice to engage in alternative medication.”

At HCI Alternatives, patients check in with a receptionist.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
At HCI Alternatives, patients check in with a receptionist.

What do Missourians want?

Some initiative petitions that could go before voters in 2018 look beyond marijuana for medical use. Charles Jones of Elsinore filed one that calls for broad legalization, including the release of people in prison for pot-related offenses.

Jones used to work as a lineman for an electrical company until he was injured on the job 12 years ago. The one time he has been without pain since then was a week he spent in Colorado, where marijuana is legal. He partook.

“The plant has so many more beneficial uses than smoking it. There’s no reason for it to be illegal,” said Jones, who is optimistic that the group of volunteers that he’s assembled will help him collect the necessary signatures.

New Approach Missouri, the group seeking medical marijuana, is an offshoot of Show Me Cannabis, which narrowly failed to get a similar proposal on the 2016 ballot. New Approach campaign chairman John Payne said the strongest opposition continues to come from local prosecutors who point out that marijuana is still outlawed by the federal government.

“They’re still out there and they’re still opposed to what we’re trying to do,” Payne said. “They’re really sort of stuck in this ‘reefer madness’ way of thinking.”

Count Sessions, the U.S. attorney general, among them. He’s made clear he wants to go after states that have legalized marijuana for any reason. In May, he sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them to get rid of a federal provision that since 2014 has protected states with medical marijuana programs — and, in effect, those states that legalized marijuana for any use.

In Missouri, the initiative efforts stem from longstanding failures in persuading the General Assembly to consider at least legalizing marijuana for medical use, according to longtime pro-pot activist Dan Viets, who is a lawyer in Columbia.

“There isn’t much of an organized opposition,” Viets said.  

Republican state Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, has voted in favor of medical marijuana. Though he favors strict state oversight, Koenig said marijuana should be available for cancer patients and others who are seriously ill.

“Who am I to say that if you’re on your deathbed, that you can’t do something that could help yourself,” Koenig said.

Scott Abbott, chief operating officer for HCI Alternatives, is a retired Illinois State Police colonel.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Scott Abbott, chief operating officer for HCI Alternatives, is a retired Illinois State Police colonel.

Rolling in money

For many states, weed’s big enticement is money. Colorado’s pot production and sales poured $200 million dollars into state tax coffers last year.

And in Illinois, this year’s retail sales of cannabis products through May was close to $30 million. The state’s tax share, including sales tax, is close to $3 million since the dispensaries began operation in November 2015. Some Illinois legislators already are pressing for an expanded legalization program in hopes of raising more income from marijuana sales to ease Illinois’ budget crunch.

HCI is paying attention to what’s happening in Missouri,  Abbott said. “We’re anxious to expand to neighboring states,’’ if their laws are similar to those in Illinois.

Follow Jo on Twitter:@jmannies

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.