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Judge to decide if Missouri voters can weigh in on medical marijuana proposal this fall

Judge to decide if Missouri voters can weigh in on medical marijuana proposal this fall

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JEFFERSON CITY • A Cole County Circuit Court judge is expected to decide this week if a proposal to legalize medical marijuana can go before voters in November.

Backed by the nonprofit New Approach Missouri, the measure would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat patients with certain conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Election authorities in a district encompassing Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties invalidated 10,700 signatures collected for the petition, leaving the campaign 2,000 shy of the required 32,337 they needed for that district.

Supporters of the effort say the sheer number of signatures tossed out was cause for concern, questioning if overworked or inexperienced staffers made a mistake.

The first day of court proceedings centered largely around the process for getting a citizen initiative on the ballot, which involves gathering a required number of signatures for a petition that will allow voters to weigh in on changes to the state constitution.

They’re often a last resort for citizens who are frustrated with political leaders or for those who support causes they can’t get lawmakers to support. In this case, GOP supermajorities in the state legislature have largely rejected attempts to decriminalize marijuana or legalize it for medicinal purposes.

For example, a much stricter effort failed in the Missouri House last session, when lawmakers rejected a plan that would have allowed terminally ill patients to use the drug to relieve pain.

Signatures must come from registered voters, who fill out forms based on what county in Missouri they’re registered to vote in. Local election authorities are tasked with matching up the signatures on petitions with signatures in their own records.

Witnesses who helped gather or verify signatures on behalf of New Approach testified Monday that voters often don’t know what county they’re registered in. Sometimes, they argued, errors are made simply because supporters don’t understand the process of a ballot initiative.

But that doesn't always mean those signatures should be tossed. 

“There’s not a huge level of knowledge about this among the voting public,” said New Approach campaign manager John Payne, who testified Monday that backers estimate more than 2,000 signatures were not counted but should have been.

Attorneys from both sides questioned Payne about individual signatures and the logistics of gathering them. Payne explained other reasons why a signature on a petition might not match the Secretary of State’s records – inclement weather could have caused a voter to rush while signing, for example.

And many supporters of medical marijuana have nervous and muscular degenerative diseases that may make signing their names more difficult, he said.

The issue must be resolved by September 27 if the proposal has a chance to get on the ballot for the general election on Nov. 8.

Supporters speaking outside the courthouse before the trial began included war veterans, cancer survivors, and the mother of a boy with epilepsy and cerebral palsy, all of whom said the drug could provide relief for millions of Missourians.

New Approach President Lee Winters pointed to polling that showed wide support of the initiative, saying state prosecutors were wrong to try to keep it off the ballot.

“It is significant and far overreach for an elected public official to be using public funds to disenfranchise Missouri voters on this issue,” Winters said.

New Approach Missouri also argues that taxing marijuana at 4 percent under the proposal would generate $20 million to be put toward Missouri veterans’ health care.

Should a court rule in the group's favor and the measure wins enough votes Nov. 8, Missouri could become the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.

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