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Medical pot is finally a constitutional right in Missouri. And the state is almost ready

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There's something surreal about going to the official website of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and having the top link pose the question, "How do I apply for medical marijuana identification card?"

That's quite something to process if one has railed against Reefer Madness for, say, half of a century. It evokes a mandatory double take, as if a police officer pulled over your car and said, "Excuse me, would you like to share this bong?"

This is happening. It's not a trap. Real-world relief is here for people in Missouri who can benefit from this use of medical marijuana for a wide range of serious illnesses, the side effects of chemo treatment and the like. We have traveled a long and winding road to arrive here.

Now the buzz wouldn't seem right without some feeling of disorientation. There is this: For reasons totally benign, Missouri is granting medical marijuana cards by the thousands before said marijuana will be legally available for purchase by the those individuals.

Good for DHSS that it has wasted no time processing requests for the ID card. This is a serious health matter for people who cannot wait for the relief that medical marijuana can provide.

There are a few bumps in the road, however. You see, several months will be needed to establish the infrastructure through which patients will receive the marijuana they need. Again, I can't believe I just wrote that sentence, one that reads so much more graciously than just the words "scoring weed."

But this is serious business, and it's truly about medicinal purposes and not recreation (no matter how many of us think it should exist for both). It's important to understand what is provided for by Article XIV of the Missouri Constitution, the one established last year by a landslide margin of 66 to 34 percent of state voters — that's 752,000 voters. Not to mention the dozens who showed up a day late to vote. (Sorry, couldn't resist at least one old pot joke).

The voters passed something called Amendment Two, the Medical Marijuana and Veteran Healthcare Services Initiative. But that's not what it is anymore: Now it's Article XIV of the Missouri Constitution guaranteeing qualified Missourians the right to possess pot legally for medicinal purposes. This is real.

To be clear, this isn't about drug dealing on the street. Missouri law now concerns itself with four areas of logistics: commercial cultivation of marijuana; food and beverage processing for edibles and extracts; testing facilities for contaminants and potency; and the establishment of 192 retail dispensaries (24 for each of the state's eight congressional districts).

It's a sensible system but one that will take several months to implement. The dispensaries are expected to start opening at year's end, but they can only sell marijuana legally produced in Missouri. And the related commercial enterprises — cultivation, manufacturing and inspections — will need time to get up and running before there's product to sell in those dispensaries.

Herein lies a rather intriguing kerfuffle: The people who are obtaining medical marijuana ID cards now have the right to possess pot, and cannot be busted for having it, and they seriously need it now and shouldn't be arrested for trying to get it.

But there's no one to sell it to them legally yet. You cannot acquire legal pot in a state like Colorado and bring it across state lines — that's a problem — so the only way now to exercise your Missouri constitutional right to possess it for medicinal use is to buy it from someone who cannot sell it to you legally. Or something like that.

I realize that if you're stoned, that might be a little hard to follow. But I believe it's also confounding if you're not stoned.

The situation cried out for me to deploy my vast journalistic investigative skill to get to the bottom of things, so I made one call to Columbia attorney Dan Viets, the man I've leaned on shamelessly for decades regarding all things pot-related. Viets was student-body president at the University of Missouri-Columbia when I was student-newspaper editor there in the early 1970s. More significantly, he has been a leader in the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws and the coordinator and driving force behind Missouri NORML, and thus, Article XIV.

Given that our shared experience on this subject has involved many more defeats than victories, I was stunned by his response when I inquired as to how badly Missouri might be expected to louse up becoming the nation's 33rd state to legalize medical pot.

"DHSS has done a great job with this program," Viets says. "In many other states, they've dragged their feet after the citizens passed a marijuana initiative, but Missouri has not."

Viets, who is pro-choice, even goes so far as to give a shout-out to DHSS Director Randall Williams, a man despised by many for his prominence in the state's war on Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. Acknowledging that Williams has been a "lightning rod" on that issue, Viets says it's different regarding medicinal pot.

"Williams has done his level best to do exactly what Article XIV says to do," Viets says. "It has been pretty amazing." He adds that one of Missouri's key — and rare — features is that it has provided DHSS with enough upfront user revenue, already some $3.8 million in applications fees.

But what about the whole thing where patients have their ID cards but can only buy marijuana from people who can only sell it to them illegally? The official position of DHSS is that those folks are simple going to have to wait. Viets, who has represented pot-related defendants for four decades, does depart very sharply from DHSS on that one.

"It's legal to possess marijuana, and it doesn't matter where you got it," Viets said. "But if you're asked, don't answer." He added that the problem might not exist for individuals who have paid an extra $100 to grow their own, albeit under carefully controlled conditions.

Still, there will remain challenges for a process that likely will take well into 2020 to run smoothly. And, as Viets says, there's this: Most hospitals, worried if nothing else about a hostile federal government, aren't allowing their doctors to "qualify or certify" patients to DHSS.

Viets believes that's unjustified, but he holds out optimism that it will change over time. In the meantime, companies are springing up — one called Missouri Green Doctors appears poised to be prominent in St. Louis (and there are others) — that will serve as a go-between with DHSS for qualified patients with unwilling doctors.

So the world of pot remains a bit cloudy in Missouri. But there's much to celebrate, including a four percent sales tax on marijuana sales that will generate millions to provide health care services to veterans. Plus, it can't help but dent the opioid crisis and help divert criminal justice resources to more serious purposes, like fighting violent crime.

"We have one of the best laws in the country partly because we had the benefit of seeing what happened in those other states," Viets said. A key provision: Doctors are given discretion to qualify patients, even beyond the ten conditions specified in Article XIV (including cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, Parkinson's, PTSD and HIV, among others).

So Missouri is on the way to getting things right with regard to marijuana. I like writing those words.

But doesn't it sound like I'm stoned?

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at rhartmann@sbcglobal.net or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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