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Missouri marijuana initiative goes up in smoke

On three issues that have become hotly contested in numerous states, Missouri voters will decide two of them this fall.

A proposed ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana will not appear on the Nov. 8 ballot after a judge on Sept. 21 ruled petition signatures were not properly collected. Four other states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota — have initiatives this year to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
 
The two other Missouri ballot initiatives that prevailed over legal challenges this week, and thus will appear on the ballot, would impose limits on campaign contributions and increase the state’s tobacco tax by 60 cents. Missouri is one of 12 states that currently allow unlimited campaign contributions. Missouri currently has the lowest tobacco tax in the country, at 17 cents per pack.
 
Lawsuits attempting to prevent these types of measures from going to voters often allege invalid signatures, unqualified signature gatherers, the unconstitutionality of the measure, biased or misleading petition language, or other criticisms, according to Ballotpedia. Lawsuits against citizen initiatives and veto referendums also are more prevalent than measures issued by state legislatures.
 
Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, a nonprofit organization that advocates for protecting and expanding the initiative and referendum process to all states, said voters should be allowed to have their say without legal interference.
 
“Legal challenges tend to happen when someone thinks a measure actually is going to pass if it’s on the ballot,” Jacob said. “Filing a lawsuit is a way to try to defeat it before it gets to the voters. They’re not letting the voters have their voice when that happens. The whole idea of citizen-driven initiatives is to allow regular folks to weigh in. It is designed for the people who are not experts and not lobbyists.”
 
Jacob said legislatures also try to pass laws that govern and place restrictions on the citizen-led initiative process. Some objection stems from “ballot-box” budgeting, in which voters approve measures without the benefit of proper legislative appropriation of funds, according to Ballotpedia.
 
“Initiative petitions are an end-around on legislatures’ monopoly to pass laws,” Jacob said. “It makes it tough for the people to be heard. There are no lobbyists for the average person to affect democracy. People are supposed to be in charge, not their public servants. But every January and February when legislatures convene, there is a monstrosity of legislation to try to limit or hinder grassroots groups from being able to affect change via initiative petitions, which ultimately leads to the legal challenges.”

Jacob said that a legislature-driven ballot initiative is rarely challenged in court.
“Unfortunately, legal challenges happen way too often and succeed way too often,” Jacob said. “The courts bend over backwards to uphold legislature-driven ballot proposals but grassroots efforts often fail. Grassroots efforts often don’t have a legal team on staff to defend the proposals, either.”
 
In Missouri, Secretary of State Jason Kander’s statement following the court’s decision against legalizing medical marijuana, he mentions turning to the legislature for future passage.

“While supporters of this important proposal can try to put it on the ballot again in two years, I believe it is time for the state legislature to step up,” Kander said. “The Missouri General Assembly should pass legislation to allow medical marijuana so Missouri families that could greatly benefit from it don’t have to watch their loved ones continue suffering.

"If the legislature is not willing to do that, they should at least put the measure on the ballot themselves in 2018 to give Missouri voters the opportunity to decide on this issue.”

Joy Sweeney, executive director of the Council for Drug-Free Youth in Missouri and chairwoman of the Keeping Missouri Kids Safe Coalition, intervened in the lawsuit as an advocate for the state’s youth.

“I felt the voice of child safety was not represented in the case so they put me in as an advocate,” Sweeney said. “I am pleased with the decision because I feel the research of it being medicinal is not there. I have a problem with our 12- and 13-year-olds believing that marijuana is a medication for you. I know the battle is not over because they will bring back another plan but I am happy that this one is not on the ballot.”

Sweeney also said that she was against the proposal because it did not allow individual municipalities to opt out.
 
“Colorado has 72 municipalities that do not have marijuana dispensaries,” Sweeney said. “Missouri’s plan was forcing everybody in the state to swallow this pill. That was scary to me, especially people who are all about liberty and freedom. Do you want a dispensary to be forced into your community?”

Spokespersons for the Missouri Secretary of State and Attorney General offices said they did not immediately have information on how much legal battles cost the state’s taxpayers. The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks ballot initiatives each year, also does not have information about the cost to taxpayers nationwide. Jacob said Citizens in Charge also does not track the data.
 
Nationwide, 157 statewide ballot measures in 35 states have been certified for the Nov. 8, 2016 election, according to Ballotpedia. Citizen-based grassroots organizations were able to get 74 of those proposals on the ballots via signature petitions. The remaining were placed via state legislatures.

There have been 19 legal challenges in 10 states against this year’s ballot initiatives, with the most in California (four) and second-most in Missouri (three).
 
Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C. currently have initiative rights for their citizens, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming). Maryland and New Mexico have veto referendum rights for citizens.