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The first marijuana growers licensed by Missouri will have to commit a crime to get started, and regulators are expected to look the other way. 

Missouri law allows for state-approved businesses and individuals to grow marijuana for medicinal use, but says little about how growers should obtain their first seeds. That's because it's a felony to obtain young marijuana plants or seeds already in Missouri, or to get them from one of the 32 other states with legal marijuana. 

“It’s a real sticky situation,” said Zachary Post, who recently started a Florissant business that offers to teach state-approved marijuana patients how to grow cannabis at home. “It’s legal to grow cannabis, but it takes a seed to grow it, but we’re not going to tell you where you can get it — it’s weird.”

Marijuana grown, sold and used for medical purposes became legal in Missouri on Dec. 6, but no one is allowed to do anything with the drug until they receive approval by state regulators. That could be as early as December for business owners applying to grow marijuana commercially, and as early as July 28 for patients applying to grow it at home.

Missouri requires that after Dec. 31, 2020, anyone growing marijuana legally must obtain seeds or plants from a business licensed by the state. But it takes at least a few months for a crop to mature, so growers licensed by January won't have any legal in-state sources for marijuana seeds or young plants. Sales of marijuana and infused products aren't expected to start until spring. 

Until then, it will likely be “don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Morgan Fox, with the National Cannabis Industry Association. The majority of states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use didn't ask marijuana growers where they got their first seeds and plants, he said. 

“By and large it's one of those things where law enforcement just agrees to look the other way,” Fox said.

Lyndall Fraker, director of Missouri’s medical marijuana program, said in April that  Missouri likely would follow other states in instituting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” period. Fraker answered questions at the Missouri Cannabis Industry Association’s two-day conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Bridgeton.

“Most of the states did a grace period,” Fraker said.

‘Chicken and egg’

Marijuana advocates and state regulators are well aware of the paradox involved in growing marijuana legally, said Dan Viets, head of the Missouri Medical Cannabis Industry Association and a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization. 

“It’s kind of a ‘chicken and the egg’ issue — it has to start from somewhere,” Viets said. “The stork doesn’t bring it. Santa Claus doesn’t bring it.”

And Missouri, which in November became the 33rd state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use, won't distribute marijuana to growers either. That would be a felony; the federal government classifies marijuana as an illicit substance.

Some states that legalized marijuana in recent years specifically allowed permitted businesses to get seeds from other states with legal marijuana operations, said Jared Moffat, who tracks marijuana laws in Missouri and 10 other states as part of the Marijuana Policy Project. But that is still dubious legal ground, he said. 

“It’s one thing to regulate a private industry operating with a federally banned substance, it’s another to direct your state employees to break federal law,” he said. “There’s never been an established sort of route when states legalize marijuana to procure it."

Some marijuana growers order seeds from a number of businesses that advertise online discreet — and illegal — shipments. Companies with marijuana operations in multiple states transport seeds or plants between them. Other groups start growing plants to have ready once they get state approval. 

But apart from anecdotes, marijuana insiders don't discuss how they obtained their first seeds because of the legal gray area, said Matthew Holland, a St. Louis resident who previously worked for a legal marijuana grower in Illinois. State regulators there had an initial 'don't ask, don't tell policy,' he said.

"They didn't want to know where you were getting your genetics (seeds or plants), and you didn't want to tell them," he said. There's no legally well-accepted way to do it as far as I know."

Discretion is key

The crime of transporting marijuana material across state lines is one example of how federal law affects even marijuana operations that are legal under state laws. Traditional banks are reluctant to handle marijuana companies’ money, and businesses can’t apply for tax credits, for example.

  

But federal officials have largely taken a hands-off approach to states legalizing marijuana, Fox said. And future Missouri growers could avoid trouble with law enforcement by being discreet, he said. 

“It would be a waste of tremendous resources to restrict it," Fox said. "The goal is to get the program off the ground and running."

Growers of hemp, marijuana’s botanical cousin, were once in the same position as marijuana growers, seeking to obtain seeds of a plant the federal government classified as a controlled substance. 

That classification was removed last year, but it was still in effect when Missouri licensed two companies in 2015 to grow the cannabis plant for production of CBD, a non-high-inducing ingredient that is marketed as a medical treatment, under a state law allowing some epilepsy patients to obtain an extract from cannabis plants. 

“It was a very confusing time, and put everyone in a difficult situation including the state,” said Mitch Meyers, a former Anheuser-Busch executive and CEO of BeLeaf, one of the two companies in Missouri licensed to grow the plant to produce CBD oil. “It’s like, how do you get the plants to start? And it’s almost like, ’immaculate conception.’"

BeLeaf bought its seeds from California and Colorado when the company started six years ago, Meyers said. 

“The first thing you had to do is sign a form that says 'I realize we are breaking federal law and run the risk of becoming arrested,'“ she said. “Obviously it’s not for the faint of heart, but we believed in it and knew the product could help people.“

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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.