Missouri legislators vote to require fingerprint background checks for cannabis employees

By: - May 11, 2023 3:35 pm

Dierra Henderson, a budtender at Luxury Leaf dispensary in St. Louis, checks in clients at the front door. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent.)

Everyone working in Missouri’s cannabis industry would be required to submit to a fingerprint background check under legislation approved Thursday.

Under the constitutional amendment that voters passed in November to legalize recreational marijuana, only the owners of cannabis companies are required to submit their fingerprints to the Missouri Highway Patrol for a criminal background check. Employees currently undergo a background check but aren’t required to be fingerprinted. 

On Thursday, the Missouri Senate voted 32-2 to pass legislation extending the fingerprinting requirement to all employees, contractors and volunteers of cannabis businesses. The bill also makes some revisions to the background check process for schools and child care facilities. 

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. 

The measure had support from both the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), which oversees the state’s cannabis program, and the Missouri Cannabis Trade Association, which represents marijuana  professionals and business owners.

However, the fingerprinting requirement could slow down the process of getting new cannabis employees to work, just as the state is seeing a surge in job growth, a cannabis human-resource specialist told The Independent in April. 

While there was no discussion about the measure before the Senate vote on Thursday, bill sponsor Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Scott City, said the fingerprinting measure was “a federal requirement,” during debate in March. 

“So it’s putting us in line with federal regulations,” she said.

The federal government doesn’t regulate the marijuana industry in any way because it’s federally illegal. But the feds have given some guidance for states in the past. 

The recreational or adult-use of cannabis has been approved in Washington, D.C., and 22 states, and the medical use has been legalized in 40 states.

Every state handles background checks differently. 

In California, only owners are required to go through fingerprint-based criminal background checks, not employees. But Arizona requires fingerprint-based background checks for all employees, board members, owners and volunteers.

John Payne, founder and managing member of Amendment 2 Consultants, said lawmakers often refer to what’s known as the “Cole Memo” as the basis for how they go about this process — which is likely what Rehder was referring to as well. 

In 2013, then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo to address the rise in states legalizing medical marijuana. Payne says it essentially was an agreement that the federal government was going to leave state marijuana programs alone, as long as they meet certain conditions.

“One of those conditions was basically preventing people from organized crime from getting into the marijuana business,” Payne said. “It depends on what the background check is for, right? If it’s for people that have that sort of background, that would be reasonable.”

Luxury Leaf dispensary owner Adrienne Williams talks with her employee Marcus Kerr about store products (Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent)

Anyone who wants to work in the cannabis industry must get an “agent ID badge” through the state, which is when the background check occurs. 

The 2018 constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Missouri — which was on the ballot as Amendment 2 — required all owners, employees and contractors to go through a fingerprint-based background check for medical marijuana.

However, since Dec. 8 when the constitutional amendment legalizing  recreational marijuana (Amendment 3) went into effect, DHSS stopped requiring fingerprinting for the ID badge applications of employees.

“You have to attest to not committing disqualifying offenses,” said Christy Essex, who runs the largest Missouri-based cannabis staffing company, Se7en Staffing & Employment Solutions. “Right now, we’re able to get people to work within a 48-hour time period.”

Adding in the fingerprinting process, she said, takes that up to 14 days to get an employee to work.

The constitution states that people with a “disqualifying felony” can’t work in the industry, though it doesn’t specify what types of felony offenses. It exempts marijuana offenses that are eligible for expungement. It also says that if it’s a nonviolent felony offense, employees are in the clear if it has been more than five years since the charge. 

For other felonies, “more than five years have passed since the person was released from parole or probation, and he or she has not been convicted of any subsequent felony criminal offenses,” it states.

According to DHSS, a lot of their review is subjective.

“What is written into law is then applied to each individual record, so it is a case-by-case analysis and can’t simply be determined by a checklist of potential offenses,” said Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for DHSS, in an email to The Independent in April.

During committee hearings, DHSS representatives said the department supported the measure because it will help streamline the process, since Amendment 2 requires fingerprinting for medical marijuana while Amendment 3 does not.

Missouri’s job surge is best seen through the number of ID badge applications the state approves for new employees each month — it’s quadrupled since November. 

In November, DHSS approved 264 badges. It doubled in December to more than 500 badges – and then doubled again to more than 1,000 in both January, February and March.

With the governor’s signature, the process would revert back to the original fingerprinting process before Amendment 3 went into effect. 

Essex said the challenge she sees is that there weren’t enough vendors that take the fingerprints to keep pace with the employees for medical marijuana, particularly in the larger cities like Kansas City and St. Louis. Employees had a hard time getting appointments with vendors. 

“Hopefully if they do implement the fingerprinting again,” Essex told The Independent in April, “there’ll be more providers in the state of Missouri that will be able to deal with a large quantity of candidates.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.