New rules stir fear Black Missourians will once again lose out in marijuana licensing

Missouri regulators listed ZIP codes that qualify as having historic incarceration rates for marijuana offenses in the new cannabis rules. None are in North St. Louis where about half of the state’s Black population resides

By: - May 30, 2023 5:55 am

St. Louis NAACP chapter president Adolphus Pruitt sent a letter on May 25, 2023 to Amy Moore, the director of Missouri’s division of cannabis regulation, demanding the division address confusion in the microbusiness application requirements. (Photo by Wiley Price/The St. Louis American)

When a marijuana legalization amendment was being criticized last year over concerns it would calcify the lack of Black participation in the burgeoning industry, Adolphus Pruitt was one of its most vociferous defenders.

Pruitt, the president of the St. Louis City NAACP, and other local NAACP leaders insisted the constitutional amendment establish a “microbusiness license” program. The intent was to award marijuana licenses to business owners who live in communities that have long felt the brunt of marijuana criminalization — and studies show that’s largely Black communities. 

But Pruitt’s tone changed Thursday when he saw the fine print in the requirements for the microbusiness license application the state will release on June 6.

“I was shocked,” Pruitt said when he saw the list of ZIP codes the state deemed as qualifying for historic high rates of incarceration for marijuana-related offenses.

Of the 121 ZIP codes listed, nine are in the St. Louis region — but none are in North St. Louis where about half of the state’s Black population resides.

Three are ZIP codes for P.O. Boxes — two in downtown St. Louis and one in St. Charles. 

Three are to banks and the U.S. Postal Inspection service in downtown St. Louis that have  “unique” ZIP codes, which are designated to institutions with high mail traffic. 

The three regular ZIP codes that cover a geographic area included downtown St. Louis, which is among the least residential areas in the city, and downtown Clayton, among the most affluent suburbs in the region where the average household income is $200,000. And the last one is for St. Charles, where the population is 90% Caucasian, according to the Census. 

Applicants must show they live within these ZIP codes by showing utility bills, personal property tax bills, or copies of a current mortgage or lease.

“Listen, not today, not if it’s legal and not even when it was illegal, will you find a bunch of Black people smoking weed in the middle of Clayton,” Pruitt said. “There is no way in the world the people in Clayton have been arrested more than the people who live in North St. Louis. It’s impossible.”

Pruitt on Thursday sent a letter to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which oversees the marijuana program, demanding an “immediate correction” ahead of the application form’s release in two weeks. 

This fall, Missouri will award 48 microbusiness licenses, according to the proposed marijuana regulation rules, and the window to file applications is July 27 to Aug. 10. 

The St. Louis ZIP codes, Pruitt said, are just the start of the problems with the “qualifying ZIP codes,” listed in the state’s new cannabis rules.

Thirty-five of those on the list are either P.O. Boxes or unique ZIP codes throughout the state, including to six state agencies in Jefferson City, the Federal Reserve in Kansas City and the University Hospital medical complex in Columbia. 

Many of the other ZIP codes point to rural areas throughout the state where populations are sparse.

In a letter on Friday responding to Pruitt’s concerns, Amy Moore, director of the state’s Division of Cannabis Regulation, said DHSS stands by the list.

“The drafters of the law did not provide any mechanism for conducting the required incarceration rate analysis,” she wrote.

Moore told Pruitt the Missouri State Highway Patrol has the only complete incarceration data set that applies equally across the state, so that’s the data DHSS based its analysis on.

“We believe the mechanism we used to find eligible ZIP codes under the incarceration rate criteria is the most effective mechanism available,” Moore wrote in her email to Pruitt, “and during the public rulemaking process, we received no alternative suggestions for how to determine eligible ZIP codes.”

When The Independent asked DHSS last week about the five ZIP codes in downtown St. Louis that are to single addresses or P.O. Boxes, DHSS spokeswoman Lisa Cox said that they were included “because they are part of a Census tract area.”

However, according to Lt. Eric Brown, spokesman for the Missouri Highway Patrol, those St. Louis ZIP codes were not provided to DHSS by the highway patrol. 

“I do not know how many of the zip codes were not provided by the Patrol,” Brown said in an email Friday. “DHSS will be your best source for finding an answer to that question since they are the agency in charge of the rules.”

In Pruitt’s letter to Moore, he questioned if the ZIP codes only represent areas with prison or jails, where people are incarcerated and not where they actually live. He thought that might explain why the ZIP codes are in so many rural areas. 

Moore also told Pruitt correction facilities did not skew the data. 

Six of the state’s prisons are within these ZIP codes, but Missouri’s other 15 prisons are not. 

Downtown St. Louis and Clayton both have jails, Pruitt said. But Moore responded, “…they would have been on the eligible list of zip codes with or without a jail population.”

Pruitt said if downtown St. Louis, Clayton and St. Charles remain the only regular geographic ZIP codes where people qualify for microbusiness licenses under this category, “I think it will be time to challenge it and even if necessary, litigate it, because that should not be the case.”

St. Louis Democratic Rep. Peter Merideth, who sits on a House committee tasked with reviewing the new cannabis rules, said he will “definitely be looking into this.”

“If the ZIP codes are supposed to be identifying communities that were harmed the most by criminalization of cannabis and they aren’t including those communities, we have a problem,” Meredith said. “It’s even more concerning if, in fact, ZIP codes are included where nobody actually lives.”

Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP, was one of the biggest opponents to last year’s legalization amendment because he didn’t believe the promises made by backers that more social equity would come to fruition.

“This is exactly what we were afraid of,” Chapel said. “When I look at the map (of ZIP codes), I can’t hardly tell that there would be any Black people affected. But rural Missouri has big old swaths of sections where apparently the microgrow is going to be allowed. That doesn’t seem fair.”

Outreach for microbusiness applicants

Another concern for Pruitt, Chapel and others who are working with potential applicants is the lack of education and outreach on the program.

“I’ve been talking with folks around the state the last couple of weeks, and not one, to my knowledge, has any information about the eligibility requirements, the application process or anything — from St. Joe to the Bootheel,” Chapel said. 

By law, DHSS had to hire a chief equity officer for its marijuana program by Feb. 6 — a position meant to ensure the social and economic equity requirements of Missouri’s new marijuana law are met.

The chief equity officer, Abigail Vivas, now oversees the microbusiness license program. DHSS has yet to make Vivas available for an interview following The Independent’s repeated requests. 

The law mandates that the chief equity officer create and promote educational programming around the licensing process and available support and resources for individuals applying for microbusiness licenses.

In an email to the Independent, Cox said Vivas has been “building a network of individuals and groups who may assist with spreading the word to eligible applicant populations about training and technical assistance opportunities.” 

Those assistance opportunities include a series of in-person training and technical assistance across the state over the course of the next two months, Cox said, and resources and events will also be made available online soon.

Denise McCracken, an attorney of D.B. McCracken Law practice who is working with clients to prepare for the application process, said she’s yet to see any outreach from Vivas’ office so far. Pruitt hasn’t either.

Applicants must meet one of eight requirements: 

  • A a net worth of less than $250,000 and gross household income below the poverty line three of the last 10 years; 
  • a military service-connected disability; 
  • an arrest on a non-violent marijuana charge at least a year before legalization or be the spouse or guardian of such person; 
  • live in an area with high poverty or unemployment; 
  • live in an area with historically high marijuana incarceration rates; 
  • graduate from an unaccredited school district; 
  • or live in an unaccredited school district three of the last five years.

Applicants have to provide several pieces of evidence to prove they qualify in the various categories, but it’s not always clear what will be accepted, she said, as the ZIP code list has proven.

“It would be very helpful if they had a pre-application process where someone couldn’t submit the evidence that they have and see if DHSS would find it acceptable,” McCracken said. 

By law, the department has 300 days from Dec. 8 to issue the first set of microbusiness licenses, a minimum of 48.

In late April, DHSS touted the agency was going to accept microbusiness applications early — in July instead of September.

Then 270 days after the department begins issuing the licenses and the equity officer ensures they went to eligible applicants, the department will issue another 48 licenses. That repeats again at the 548-day mark, which will bring the total to 144 licenses at minimum by early 2025.  

In each round, there will be at least six licenses issued in each of the state’s eight congressional districts — at least two for dispensaries and at least four for wholesale facilities. 

Pruitt said the intent of these licenses was to provide people with a lower socioeconomic status with the opportunity to become cannabis business owners.

The constitutional intent of the amendment is clear with respect to the beneficiaries of microlicenses, he said. And the current rule making with respect to ZIP codes does not past muster.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to clarify the criteria applicants must meet in order to obtain a microbusiness license.

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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.

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