Update 4 pm: Bad news, cannabis activists
. This afternoon, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled that the Missouri Secretary of State and local election authorities acted properly when they invalidated hundreds of petition signatures that had been collected on the wrong county form. The ruling effectively kills any chance for the medical cannabis measure to make the November ballot.
End of update. Our original story continues below:
Just 23 signatures could stand between Missouri and medical marijuana.
The Missouri Secretary of State is in court this week, arguing that a ballot initiative to legalize pot for cancer patients and others suffering from chronic pain came up short in the number of signatures required — and should be stripped from the November ballot.
But its shortfall appears to be by the narrowest, and most painful, of margins.
The pro-pot group New Approach Missouri submitted about 285,000 signatures to Secretary of State Jason Kander by the May deadline, more than the total required. But Kander announced
last month that more than 10,000 signatures from the state's 2nd Congressional District had to be thrown out, leaving the group 2,242 signatures short of the 32,337 target.
New Approach Missouri then sued Kander, arguing that the signatures had been wrongly invalidated. The group submitted evidence to the Cole County Circuit Court showing that an additional 2,219 signatures were, in fact, legitimate.
But that still leaves New Approach Missouri with a 23-signature shortfall in the second district. Now the pro-pot group is making a last-ditch effort to persuade the judge to accept additional signatures in its possession, signatures that would make up the difference and give people the right to vote.
If the judge rules against the group, medical marijuana is dead for this election cycle — and possibly for another four years. (Presidential elections offer the best chance for ballot initiatives like medical marijuana, since they bring out more voters, and those who are demographically more likely to say "yes" to pot.)
Losing by such a ludicrously narrow margin would prove an especially crushing defeat. New Approach Missouri spent months — and hundreds of thousands of dollars — to collect enough signatures to make the ballot, a benchmark defined by law
as equal to a certain percentage of voters in six of the state's eight congressional districts.
The group believes that it deserves to be on the ballot.
Of the 23 signatures, admits president Lee Winters, "that's a hurdle we have to get over." But, he adds, "We have several hundred more signatures that we have backed up with Missouri registration files that show we have more than met the minimum qualification for the ballot."
It's not certain that New Approach Missouri will be able to submit those additional signatures into evidence. Assistant Attorney General John Hirth, who represents Kander's office, argued Monday that the group has already missed the court's evidentiary deadline, which was last Thursday.
And even putting aside the deadline issue, New Approach Missouri must also convince a judge that a state statute which invalidates any signature not signed on the correct county form — even if the signer is a registered voter in the 2nd District — is archaic and unconstitutional.
Basically, the trial revolves around the most pedantic and tedious of technicalities, with lawyers arguing over handwriting
in some individual petitions.
It's not just the Secretary of State opposing the ballot measure. Twelve Missouri prosecutors have intervened in the case as well
, and the prosecutors' attorney is now tag-teaming with Kander's legal team as they seek to bar medical marijuana from the November ballot.
"It's unbelievable; we are now fighting two separate court battles in the same courtroom," says Lee.
With a second day of trial already under way, it remains to be seen whether the Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green will allow New Approach Missouri to submit evidence of additional valid signatures. The fate of medical marijuana in Missouri hangs in the balance.
Lee says the judge is expected to deliver a final decision as early as the end of the week.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com