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ST. LOUIS — When Matthew Prater drives, he keeps his marijuana out of reach in a sealed container labeled with a state-issued number certifying he has a legal right to possess and use marijuana as medicine.

“If I get pulled over I tell them I have a card, am in possession and where it is — and don’t have any problem,” said Prater, who owns the store Peace of Mind in St. Charles.

Prater, who says he wants to be proactive about following state laws and regulations, is one of thousands of Missourians approved to possess and use marijuana, despite there being no way for them to legally obtain marijuana until state-licensed stores open next year.

Still, Prater and other advocates contend, legal marijuana users don’t have to wait.

“I voted for the right to possess and I have that right now,” he said. “It doesn’t matter when the dispensaries open. It’s not up to the police to know where you got it. That’s your medication.”

Since June, Missouri has issued licenses to more than 13,500 people who applied to use marijuana for medical purposes after they were certified by physicians as having qualifying conditions including cancer, epilepsy, immunodeficiency, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illnesses. The licenses from the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), the agency tasked with regulating marijuana, grant holders the right to possess and use marijuana under a new article in the Missouri constitution voters approved last year.

That includes “caregivers” for marijuana patients who are allowed to possess and transport marijuana, and 5,000 cardholders who also applied for a second license to grow a limited amount of marijuana at home. The state has been issuing those licenses but did not have a count for how many have approved.

But as the state reviews applications from hundreds of groups competing for a limited number of licenses to grow, process and sell marijuana next year, there is technically no way for license holders to legally obtain marijuana.

Obtaining marijuana from the illicit market remain s illegal. Bringing marijuana or infused products like edibles legally bought in other states into Missouri violates federal law, which classifies marijuana as an illicit substance, despite state laws.

“It puts everybody in a pickle,” said Zachary Post, who owns, Elite Home Growers, a Florissant business teaching people how to grow marijuana legally at home. “We’re telling them you can have this medicine, but we can’t tell you where to get it.”

The paradox, known as the “immaculate conception problem” means that even licensed commercial growers next year will have to commit a crime to grow their first plants.

In other states, officials have granted growers an interim period long enough to cultivate the first marijuana harvest, after which they more strictly require businesses to keep track of marijuana from seed to sale. Missouri regulators are expected to do the same here — for patients, as well, said Jared Moffat with the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.

The states have “gotten through these transition periods pretty smoothly,” he said.

“Some patients may be obtaining marijuana, even if it’s illegal to do so, while others may be waiting until dispensaries open,” Moffat said in a statement. “I’m not sure I see a sensible reason or way to address the issue through policy. We certainly don’t want to see patients being arrested — that’s the whole point of the voter-approved law.”

‘Feeling the pressure’

Dan Viets, a lawyer who helped write the constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for medical use, says there’s no reason why Missourians who have obtained state approval to use medical marijuana should have to wait. The amendment, approved by voters in November, guarantees their “constitutional right” to possess and use marijuana now, he said.

“If it were a law passed by the General Assembly, judges would have more discretion,” said Viets, a longtime defense attorney for people charged with marijuana-related crimes. “It is not the defendants’ burden to prove where the marijuana came from. And it’s really not relevant. What is relevant is that Article 14 of the Missouri Constitution says a patient has the right to possess marijuana.”

A DHSS spokeswoman says people with state-issued licenses can currently possess and or use marijuana, but declined to comment on how they could obtain marijuana until businesses are licensed.

“We cannot advise anyone on where to obtain the means to grow or obtain marijuana,” spokeswoman Lisa Cox said in a statement.

How legal marijuana users can obtain marijuana before licensed stores open is one of a set of legal uncertainties they face: state legalization conflicts with a federal ban on marijuana, employers and government agencies have yet to update their policies, and specific scenarios aren’t addressed by the 14-page constitutional amendment legalizing medical pot or a series of regulations established by DHSS with public input.

While Missouri’s medical pot program says nothing about whether legal users can also legally own guns, for example, federal law bars even state-approved marijuana users from possessing guns.

Marijuana patients, many of whom are reluctant to speak publicly because of concerns it could jeopardize their employment, want to know many things, from whether they can adopt children to whether local police have the same right as DHSS officials to inspect at any time homes where marijuana is being legally grown.

“People are really feeling the pressure, they’re nervous,” Post said. But educating themselves on what they can — and can’t do — is key, he said. He directs people asking about how to get marijuana seeds, for example, to groups advertising seed sales — but with a warning, he said.

“At the same time we let them know that if they get caught with those seeds it’s technically illegal in Missouri and they have to proceed with caution,” Post said. “Or they can wait until 2020 when they can go and purchase from a dispensary.”

“Everybody’s hands are kind of tied until the laws are changed, but until that happens we kind of have to play this game.”

Lance Lenau, a medical marijuana patient and advocate with the mid-Missouri chapter for the National Organization for Marijuana Laws (NORML), advised people with state approval to use marijuana to read the constitutional amendment legalizing it “front to back.”

“They need to read that, know it and understand it forward and backward and keep up with the actual rules and regulations up to the best of their abilities,” said Lenau, 32, who was one of the top signature gatherers with New Approach, the campaign group that put the constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot.

State working group

DHSS, the Department of Public Safety and other state agencies have formed a working group to consider rules on legal marijuana use and labor laws, policing and other areas. The state has announced, for example, that families who receive certain welfare benefits would not be disqualified for legal marijuana use. And representatives have been meeting with industry and government groups, including Missouri mayors and city officials, about the medical pot program.

But DHSS has not yet issued any guidance to law enforcement on the current legal status of marijuana patient card holders.

“We have not issued any guidance to law enforcement, though we continue to work closely with all agencies affected by Article XIV as needs arise,” Cox said in a statement.

“Regarding any possession issues raised by provisions in Article XIV, interpretation and enforcement of those provisions will rest with law enforcement entities and local prosecutors, and we do not know yet how they will proceed.”

The Missouri Highway Patrol is part of the state working group, spokesman Capt. John Hotz said. The patrol is training officers on how to comply with the new laws but referred questions to DHSS.

“We will enforce the provisions as provided in the law,” Hotz said in a statement.

Some localities, like St. Louis, have begun decriminalizing marijuana possession under certain amounts. Police referred questions on medical marijuana laws to DHSS but said in a statement that the police department “will continue enforcing applicable local, state and federal laws which regulate controlled substances, including marijuana.”

“The police department is monitoring these changes and is prepared to adapt enforcement procedures accordingly,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

St. Louis County Police say they area also awaiting guidance from the St. Louis County Counselor’s office, Officer Tracy Panus, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Missouri benefits from being the 33rd state to legalize marijuana because the authors of the constitutional amendment drew from lessons learned by other states that previously legalized some form of marijuana, Viets said. For example, the amendment forbids hospitals denying organ transplants to people who tested positive for marijuana use.

Still, some questions likely will need resolution in court, Viets said.

“No one can write a law that anticipates every possible issue that will arise,” Viets said. “That’s why we have the courts, to interpret the law. But not on a blanket basis. It depends on each case.”

Viets was recently contacted by a man who was arrested but not charged on suspicion of marijuana possession after a police officer in Republic, Missouri, pulled the man over for a suspected traffic violation. The officer took his marijuana and paraphernalia, and the man hasn’t been able to get it back, Viets said. He is also concerned about judges revoking probation or bond for criminal defendants because they were found to have used marijuana legally.

“I’ve got cases right now where those issues are boiling up,” he said. “It’s going to be in front of judges across the state in pretty short order.”

Prater, who was once sentenced to probation after he was found in possession of marijuana edibles, said it is a relief to be able to use marijuana legally. He got a card in part because he wants to safely buy tested marijuana as he would other medications.

“It will be a bigger relief,” Prater said, “when I no longer have to worry about it and the dispensaries are open and I know my medicine will be clean.”

Nassim Benchaabane • 314-340-8167 @NassimBnchabane on Twitter nbenchaabane@post-dispatch.com

Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.