ST. CHARLES — One mayor wanted to know if people living next to a day care could grow marijuana at home. A city consultant asked whether local police can access Missouri’s list of legal marijuana patients. An alderman inquired whether the state would give a boost to minority-owned marijuana businesses. Another official was concerned about where people would be allowed to smoke.

Local lawmakers across Missouri are considering the impact that marijuana — the state’s newest medicinal and cash crop — will have on their communities once sales begin, as soon as spring. At least 9,700 people statewide have been approved to legally use marijuana.

“It’s such a new thing and such a big change,” said Dan Ross, director of the Missouri Municipal League, which includes small towns to wide suburbs across the state. “We’re feeling our way through this and looking at experiences in other states. But it’s not cut and dry.”

The state municipal league reserved the closing keynote session of its recent annual conference in St. Charles to educate more than 200 local officials on Missouri’s medical marijuana program. The league published guides on medical marijuana for its members, including one addressing changes to personnel laws.

St. Louis-area lawmakers asked about their authority to tax and regulate the new businesses. Others wanted to know whether marijuana sales will boost local tax revenue or employment. And some wanted to know how legal marijuana could complicate policing, affect property values and make neighborhoods smell.

“I think, generally speaking, the cities are looking at this more as ‘OK, the state has established this program, so now how is this going to fit in our community?’” Pat Kelly, director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, said last week.The municipal league, which includes more than 80 St. Louis-area local governments, first met early this year to discuss how to adapt to a long-illegal substance becoming legal in certain uses.

Questions include how local laws will intersect with state laws and regulations — not to mention federal laws that still classify marijuana as an illegal substance. In other states, such conflicts have led to lawsuits.

Twenty-five cities in California, for example, have sued the state to overturn a rule allowing home delivery statewide regardless of whether cities allow commercial pot sales. And marijuana businesses have sued state or local lawmakers over license or permit denials and other regulations.

Advocates of the industry say cities shouldn’t worry that marijuana will cause drastic changes, pointing to 32 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, that have either fully legalized marijuana or legalized it for medicinal use since California first allowed medical marijuana in 1996. And they say it represents an economic boon, pointing to a state auditor’s office estimate that medical marijuana sales could generate $6 million in annual tax revenue for local governments.

The businesses will pay employees well and hire local contractors for services, Eric Walter, an attorney with the Missouri Cannabis Trade Association, told lawmakers at the state municipal conference. The association published a 22-page guide for municipalities about the state’s new medical marijuana program with a template for city ordinances and photos and floor plans for dispensaries in other states. The facilities will be high-tech and well-secured, and their owners “sophisticated business professionals,” Walter said.

“They’re going to be good civic, corporate citizens,” Walter said. “Local governments and municipalities should want these businesses in their communities.”

States that have fully legalized marijuana have all exceeded their projections for tax revenues on pot sales, said Liberty Vittert, a Washington University visiting professor of practice in data science who studies marijuana’s impact on tax revenue, crime and teenage marijuana usage.

There is no correlation between marijuana legalization and increases in crime, and while there have been slight increases in teenage usage in states with legal weed, the increase could be attributed to users being more comfortable self-reporting, she said.

As for tax revenue, those states may not have met expectations in the first year, but they exceeded them once businesses were licensed and the industry was in full swing, she said.

“There is no doubt that their projections are, if nothing, conservative for what they saw in a few years — it just doesn’t happen overnight,” she said.

Buffer zones

Overall, local governments are fairly limited in the ordinances they can impose on medical marijuana. Most questions about commercial production and private use are addressed in the constitutional amendment Missouri voters approved in November that legalized marijuana, as well as rules state regulators drafted with public input.

State law says local governments can’t prohibit legal marijuana businesses or use. But they can set the “time, place and manner” in which marijuana businesses operate, a process that is well underway in many area cities as they field inquiries from hundreds of prospective marijuana shops competing for a limited number of state licenses. That includes 400 hopeful dispensaries competing for a little more than 48 licenses for the region.

Cities have a right to waive a state requirement that forbids marijuana businesses within 1,000 feet of any school, day care or church, and they retain their usual authority to amend zoning laws to include marijuana businesses and require special permits for businesses that want to locate near residential areas.

“When it comes down to the regulation, the question is where in the city is it going to be appropriate,” said Kelly, of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis. “I think that was very clear from the state, that these businesses will still have to abide by local ordinances and all the same kinds of things that would apply to a liquor license or a new grocery store.”

The city of St. Louis opted to waive the buffer zone after finding it difficult to locate any sites that would be far enough away from either a school, day care or church. The St. Louis County Council opted to keep the buffer at 1,000 feet in unincorporated areas. Creve Coeur adopted a 300-foot buffer zone. O’Fallon, Missouri, decided on 750 feet.

Many aspects of the industry have yet to be written into state or local laws, said Kenneth Heinz, an attorney who has represented several local cities.

“I bet if you look in your ordinances, you probably aren’t going to find the word ‘dispensary’ in there,” Heinz said to those at the state municipal league conference. Rules for pharmacies or businesses with liquor licenses could also apply to marijuana dispensaries, he added.

Missouri law, for example, forbids cities from levying more “taxes” on marijuana. “Fees,” which are defined as a payment of a service provided by a local government, could be levied, but businesses could sue if they feel they’re unfair, Heinz said.

“So the question is, ‘When does a business license fee become a revenue-generating bias?’” he said. “All of this needs to be fleshed out with litigation,” he said.

Lyndall Fraker, who directs Missouri’s marijuana regulators, said at the conference that an inquiry about whether marijuana dispensaries could also sell alcohol was the first time he encountered the question. The department has largely been focused on establishing regulations for marijuana businesses and a scoring rubric for the competitive licensing process, he said.

He said state agencies are meeting every two weeks to provide guidance on medical marijuana’s impact on other areas of governance, including labor laws and social services.

“We’re just now getting to that part of the program,” he said.

‘That’s open season’

Among other concerns was how much authority local lawmakers have over people legally growing marijuana at home, to whom the state’s 1,000-foot distance requirement and local zoning ordinances for businesses don’t apply.

“If I’m hearing this right — that’s open season,” said St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano. “So they can be right next to a day care, or be next to a church.”

Home growers need state approval and are allowed a limited amount, Fraker said. They need to meet state requirements that include a well-secured room accessible only by the patient or a licensed caregiver, and must allow state inspectors inside at any time.

In the end, replacement of the illegal marijuana trade with a state-regulated one will be an improvement, he said.

Roslyn Brown, Pine Lawn aldermanic president, said after the conference that the health and safety of children who live in homes legally approved to grow marijuana were among her chief concerns. Pine Lawn is a mostly residential community, she said. But the city also sees an opportunity for marijuana sales revenue.

“These kinds of things need to be worked out for a small community like ours that really needs the tax dollars,” Brown said. “We’re still in the discovery process.”

3 O'Clock Stir e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

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.