Analysis: Does a lack of Missouri cannabis voices mean approval?

Larisa Bolivar, founder of Denver-based Cannabis Consumer Coalition. (Submitted)

This story is not about the 156-page screed issued last week by a Colorado group against the majority of Missouri’s cannabis industry leaders. Nor is it about the 74-page Missouri Senate Democrats’ report put out in September that accuses cannabis regulators of insider dealing. And also not about last week’s trial in Jefferson City where a failed license applicant is accusing state regulators of building a medical marijuana program in line with the wishes of a cannabis trade group.

It’s about how maybe Missouri lacks a diversity of voices when it comes to cannabis.

After lots of waiting, Missouri dispensaries are finally selling cannabis, and while consumers are lining up to buy product, there is a quiet battle raging in the state about the right way to go about selling the plant.

It’s quiet because unlike in some other states with cannabis license caps, Missouri doesn’t have well organized groups pushing for changes to the license system. There’s no local Missouri campaign putting out press releases and lobbying the state capitol, giving publications like this one something to write about.

Then came along last week’s report, “What Happened In Missouri?” from the Denver-based Cannabis Consumers Coalition. It accuses the state’s industry leaders of organizing a cartel, a charge that has more than a few flaws. But while the organization of the report is a raging mess, and it struggles to prove its conclusion, it does document the history of how Missouri’s license system was created. 

The report’s problems include that it makes lots of conclusions the cited evidence does not necessarily support. The author of the report, Eapen Thampy, did not include his name on the report. And while he confirmed authorship, he would not speak to me on the record because he’s awaiting sentencing on federal charges of attempting to illegally transport 100 pounds of cannabis in 2018.

The founder of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, Larisa Bolivar, would talk to me. She believes Missouri cannabis leaders want to limit licenses in order to fix high cannabis prices.

“How we’re looking at this, is very big picture. If you look at the black market in comparison to the legalized market, those prices do influence each other. When you look at regulated market prices, they do seem to be on the high end,” said Bolivar.

Granted, things are just getting started, but last month Missouri dispensary operators told me wholesale cannabis prices were starting at about $4,500 a pound, considerably higher than Oklahoma, which has no license caps and has been averaging a wholesale price of about 40% of Missouri’s.

“I advise states to look at Oklahoma. [Missouri’s] restrictive licensing model is not going to work unless it allows for competition,” said Bolivar. “I suggest that states have something similar to liquor licensing. Have a liquor board. It should not cost a million dollars to have a cannabis license.”

Jack Cardetti, spokesman for MoCannTrade, the organization in the Cannabis Consumers Coalition’s crosshairs, quickly dismissed criticism his group is colluding in any way.

“We’re the only trade association that supports 100 percent of what Missouri voters voted on [in the 2018 legalization referendum]. There are a lot of organizations that want to change it one way or the other,” said Cardetti, who also retorts that, compared to any state other than Oklahoma, Missouri is creating a fairly large number of cannabis licenses. 

“Right now there are 21 cultivation licenses in the state of Illinois, in Missouri there will be 60. So yeah, we think the patient access is good, and there are significantly more licenses than anywhere other than in Oklahoma, and those numbers [in Missouri] will only grow from there,” said Cardetti.

Dan Viets, sits on the national board of NORML, and chaired New Approach Missouri, the group that passed the 2018 medical cannabis referendum. He didn’t think much of the report either.

“I’m not sure it’s not of any real significance,” he said. “It looks like [Thampy has] put together a bunch of documents, and recounted a lot of history. What is his point?”

But then, after talking a bit, Viets said something important.

“My personal, number one priority for nearly 50 years, is to stop people from being arrested for marijuana possession and cultivation. And politics is the art of compromise. There is nobody coming forward with the money to put legalization on the ballot other than people who are in the industry. That money is not just laying around. We can’t just put it on the ballot.” said Viets. “So, yes there are compromises. I wish there was no limit on licenses.”

Meanwhile, plaintiff’s attorney Joe Bednar in Sarcoxie Nursery’s lawsuit against the state, was arguing in trial Friday that that state regulators colluded, “with industry insiders who would go on to be awarded licenses,” reported The Missouri Independent.

Sarcoxie Nursery, near Joplin, is owned by Dr. Paul Callicoat and his wife Wendy, who filed suit against the state in December 2019, soon after they learned their application scored as number 236, when only the top 60 scores would receive licenses. Their suit charges the state has illegally limited licenses and illegally managed the license scoring process.

As part of the trial’s discovery process, the Sarcoxie Nursery legal team subpoenaed tens of thousands of state documents, including emails between Lyndall Fraker, director of Missouri’s medical marijuana program, and members of MoCannTrade, while rules for the licensing process were being developed. At least one email from a MoCannTrade representative detailed a license scheme that looks an awful lot like the one Fraker’s agency ended up adopting. In testimony Friday, Amy Moore, deputy director of Missouri’s medical marijuana program argued that overall, the state’s cannabis program is not so identical to MoCannTrade’s proposals.

Then, back in September, the minority report issued by Democrats on the Missouri Senate Committee on Government Oversight also noted lots of email traffic between MoCannTrade and Lyndall Fraker’s boss, Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services. Specifically, a MoCannTrade leader introduced Dr. Williams to the company that ended up managing application scoring.

It seems like MoCannTrade is doing a very good job of representing its members, which in itself is far from a bad thing. If a well organized group convinces government officials to choose certain policies, and members of that group then benefit, is that so bad?

It’s hard to say in Missouri, because as NORML’s Dan Viets points out, there isn’t really anyone other than industry willing to put in the time and money to organize their own views about cannabis. So far, the most visible citizens’ group doing it in Missouri is a Denver-based group.

Does that mean everyone in Missouri is happy with how things are going? For now, that’s hard to say.