JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – A call from leaders in the medical marijuana industry: Money is needed for a Missouri ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis for adults. Their colleagues responded.
Cannabis farms, manufacturers and retailers are providing millions of dollars behind petitions to put the proposal on the November ballot and advance it to voters. The deep-pocketed outpouring highlights the depth of our emerging industry’s roots in a traditionally conservative state, as well as its tremendous potential for growth.
All told, the marijuana legalization campaign has raised about $23 million in five states – Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. Most of those are in Arkansas and Missouri, where more than 85% of contributions come from donors associated with companies that hold medical marijuana licenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of recent campaign finance reports.
The biggest donor is Good Day Farm, which describes itself as “the largest licensed producer of medical marijuana in the South” with facilities in Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana. It gave a combined $3.5 million to legalization campaigns in Arkansas and Missouri. And when the Missouri campaign needed help gathering petition signatures, Good Day Farm paid an additional $1 million directly to the firm that distributed the petition.
“It’s a cost of doing business, I guess,” said Alex Gray, chief strategy officer at Good Day Farm. “This is a positive thing for the industry, but it’s also a positive thing for the country.”
Licensed medical marijuana businesses and Greenlight have given a total of about $1 million to legalization campaigns in Arkansas, Missouri and South Dakota, according to an AP analysis.
If the ballot measure passes, Greenlight CEO John Mueller said he expects to “easily double” the workforce of about 370 people at Greenlight-affiliated cultivation farms and dispensaries in Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota and West Virginia.
“Obviously, your consumer language goes up when you’re using adults,” said Mueller, a self-described activist who encourages industry colleagues to contribute to the legalization campaign.
Provisions in proposed constitutional amendments in Arkansas and Missouri would give established medical marijuana licensees a foothold in the new recreational market. But Mueller says the measure doesn’t just enrich the industry.
“It’s more jobs, more tax revenue – it gets rid of the black market,” he said.
Efforts to legalize cannabis elsewhere have not eliminated illegal traders. California voters approved the use of recreational marijuana in 2016 following a $36 million campaign for it, and the first retail store opened in 2018. But the vast illegal market remains – more than twice the legal sales, by some estimates.
Medical marijuana was authorized by voters in 2016 in Arkansas and North Dakota, in 2018 in Missouri and in 2020 in South Dakota. As elsewhere, it takes some time to get the program up and running. But in less than two years since Missouri’s store opened, medical marijuana dispensaries have reported about $500 million in sales.
The Arkansas campaign to legalize recreational marijuana for adults has raised more than $13 million, including more than $8 million in October alone, while the Missouri effort has collected more than $7 million. Campaigns in other states raised less than $1 million each. The Maryland initiative was low-profile, raising a little more than $300,000 amid perceived public support.
In Arkansas and Missouri, resistance comes from an unusual alliance of public safety groups, social conservatives who oppose legalization and some marijuana advocates who believe the ballot initiative is still too restrictive.
The Arkansas opposition is the best funded among the states. Uline CEO Richard Uihlein and Mountaire Corp. CEO Ronald Cameron each donated $1 million to the Aman and Aman Community campaign committee. The ad asserts that the legalization of marijuana for adults will lead to a surge in traffic fatalities and illegal use by young people, among other things.
Other critics contend that the structured Arkansas measure benefits only a limited number of dispensaries, saying it has no requirements to allow adults to grow marijuana at home or to remove past convictions.
“This amendment is a non-starter,” said Melissa Fults, executive director of Arkansans for Cannabis Reform. “It’s a brick wall.”
Missouri’s legalization measure — which eliminates many past marijuana arrests and convictions — has drawn opposition from Pro-Choice Missouri. Abortion rights groups say they support the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana as a “reproductive justice issue” but believe the measures are not enough to address the historic harm of “racist marijuana criminalization.”
A total of 19 states have legalized recreational marijuana for adults since voters in Colorado and Washington state first approved the measure on the ballot in 2012. The first effort was heavily funded by wealthy individuals, such as the former CEO of Progressive Insurance Peter Lewis. Tech billionaire Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, ranks among the top donors to California’s legalization campaign.
But philanthropic funding for legalization campaigns has declined as the marijuana industry has grown.
“The philanthropists who really launched this movement” are either “ready to move on to other issues or they don’t think it’s the right place to support this movement, if the industry is now mature and many of these businesses make a lot of money,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, DC.
Schweich moved to South Dakota to run a legalization campaign this year. The Marijuana Policy Project also provides staff support for the North Dakota campaign. But it did not so much involve Arkansas and Missouri, where there were greater industrial resources.
New Approach, another DC-based drug policy group, has directed more money into psychedelic mushrooms than marijuana this year. It poured $4.2 million into a campaign to make Colorado the second state, after Oregon, to allow adults 21 and older to use hallucinogenic chemicals found in some mushrooms.
Meanwhile, New Approach has donated about $700,000 to marijuana legalization campaigns in Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. As the medical marijuana industry has grown, the organization has refined its targets.
“Our focus in recent years has been on initiatives in traditionally red states, in part because that’s what we see as the most effective way to continue to move toward broader marijuana policy reform,” said New Approach Chief of Staff Taylor West. .
Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow AP’s election coverage of the 2022 election at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed from Little Rock, Ark. Harjai, who reports from Los Angeles, is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.