Three years after Missouri voters authorized medical marijuana, a haze of confusion still lingers over the industry.
“(The issue) couldn’t be further from simple I think because of the way the constitution of Missouri is written,” said Chris McHugh, an attorney and CEO of Vertical, a medical marijuana dispensary located in St. Joseph.
McHugh said Missouri’s constitutional amendment that legalizes medical marijuana allows people to possess a certain amount of the drug with an approved card. However, it leaves the source of the drug unaddressed, he said.
“(That part of the amendment) doesn’t specify where that marijuana came from,” he said. “So, under the (Missouri) constitution, it doesn’t really matter if you have a medical card where you got the marijuana. You’re allowed to possess it. And you can’t be arrested or prosecuted for that.
“It’s not legal to purchase marijuana on … the black market, but it is legal to possess that marijuana (from the black market),” he continued. “I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
If someone with a marijuana card is found with the drug, McHugh said it doesn’t matter where it came from. Even if it came from out of state or illegally, the cardholder is allowed to possess it under the state constitution as long as the amount is not over the allowable limit.
And McHugh noted the amendment has no effect on federal law, which is a “whole different layer.” Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but McHugh said it’s unlikely that national law enforcement officials like the Drug Enforcement Administration will arrest or prosecute dispensaries and cardholders on the local level.
McHugh said some local law enforcement entities have decided not to charge marijuana crimes. Marijuana possession remains a crime on the books, he said, but the law enforcement agencies will only seize the drug and then let the person go and not prosecute. He notes officials in the Kansas City area typically do not prosecute marijuana crimes involving small amounts of the drug.
But that’s not true in all areas.
“There are other parts of the state that have decided that they do want to prosecute those crimes,” he said. “So, if you don’t have a medical card and you do possess marijuana, depending on the amount, they will prosecute you for it. It just kind of depends on where you live.”
McHugh said that part of the problem is many regulations were set up before there were marijuana dispensaries.
“But now that there are actual dispensaries, our understanding is that with your medical marijuana card you have to purchase that (marijuana) from a licensed dispensary and has to be kept in certain containers with certain identifiers on it,” he said.
And even though marijuana eventually may be made legal for recreational use, Capt. Shawn Collie, the commander of the Buchanan County Drug Strike Force, noted that law enforcement agencies have to go with “laws that are on the books now.”
“(The issue) is so confusing,” Collie said. “Honestly, it’s so confusing that we, most of the time, have to call the state and ask the state to clarify different stuff for us.”
On the subject of people with medical cards possessing illegally obtained marijuana, Collie said there also is “a little bit of confusion there.”
“We’re not clear on that and so we try to get clarification from the state,” he said.
When officers are confused and have to refer to other agencies “almost like a flow chart to figure it out then obviously that’s gonna cause more issues with your everyday citizens,” Collie said.
He said there also are federal laws and state laws which may contradict each other. Other factors that may complicate things include someone traveling from a state where marijuana has been legalized or if a firearm is involved.
“I think a lot of it is just the laws are being created, and there’s so many laws being created where legislators think they’re fixing problems and they tend to create more issues by creating new laws that probably just could’ve been fixed with a clarification on the original law,” Collie said.
Cutting through the confusion, Collie said those who do have medical marijuana cards are best off going through dispensaries licensed through the state.
Legal marijuana dispensaries must go through many steps and safety factors, as opposed to those who are selling on the streets. The dispensary process aims to ensure the buyer knows exactly what he or she is getting, improving safety.
Collie said marijuana, along with other drugs that are bought on the street, doesn’t offer similar assurances. Street marijuana has been found laced with cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl, among other items, making it particularly dangerous.
“By purchasing from illegal operations, you’re putting yourself at risk,” Collie said.