What you should know about medical marijuana in Missouri: How to get a card, what are the qualifiers and more.
Megan Bridgeman, Wochit
Jeramy Mello thought he was acting in line with Missouri marijuana law in the early hours of Oct. 4.
Local authorities did not agree.
After a traffic stop inside Buffalo city limits, the 43-year-old Walnut Grove man was cited for criminal marijuana possession, despite, Mello says, being approved by state authorities to use and possess cannabis for medical treatment, and despite showing officers a digital version of his medical marijuana ID card during the traffic stop.
And the issue could affect more than 23,900 Missouri patients approved for medical marijuana ID cards since they became available five months ago.
While Missouri continues to implement medical marijuana — licenses for dispensaries are expected to be announced in late January — there appears to be little effort on the state level to share updated training about Missouri marijuana law with local law enforcement agencies.
By law, Missourians approved for a medical marijuana patient card can legally carry marijuana on their person or in their car.
Those without a card can’t carry marijuana, period.
But it’s not clear that Missouri law enforcement agencies know how to tell the difference.
Case records vanish as story readied for publication
Since Nov. 21, the News-Leader had been contacting state and local authorities about Mello’s marijuana possession case and what it means in terms of state cannabis policy.
The newspaper was ready to publish the story Wednesday when news came that the marijuana possession charge filed against Mello on Nov. 8 appeared to have been dropped.
Mello’s case — No. 19DA-CR00628 — disappeared from Missouri Case.net, the state’s public online court record system. The newspaper checked Case.net remotely and from inside the Greene County Justice Center. (Courthouse computer terminals offer access to more types of online court documents than are available remotely.)
Typically, when a case disappears from Case.net, it means charges have been dropped or the case has been dismissed.
Dallas County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Barker told the News-Leader Thursday that on Dec. 6 he sent Mello a letter dismissing the charges. He said the mail went out to the most recent address he had on file for Mello.
Mello, reached Thursday morning, said he had not received direct communication from prosecutors regarding the dismissal.
Barker declined to comment on any specific dismissed case. Speaking generally, he said decisions to dismiss cases come from his office, which is independent in performing its duties.
Barker also said that it’s common for prosecutors to dismiss charges when a defendant is able to produce documentation that would have prevented an arrest or citation from law enforcement in the first place.
“They’re not going to get penalized by me if they have the proper documentation,” he said. “I always re-evaluate cases as we go.”
Barker also said, “I think on these cases, people who qualify for these (marijuana patient) licenses, they’re going to have a learning curve to provide police with proper documentation.”
On Thursday, Mello maintained that he had provided Buffalo police officers with a medical marijuana card and other verifiable state documents during his October traffic stop — but that he was cited and charged anyway.
“I’m glad they dropped it,” Mello told the News-Leader Thursday. “I appreciate the fact that they did, but I think the whole thing in the long run is BS. I kind of feel let down by the state and by law enforcement and the whole deal.”
State authorities, Mello said, “kind of set us up for this by not having things out in the open for law enforcement, for everybody to be on the same page, so these things don’t happen.”
Governor ‘has not dictated’ marijuana card policy
Gov. Mike Parson’s communications director said Wednesday that the governor’s office “has not dictated to state agencies how they should handle this issue” of how law enforcement should approach people who say they have a valid medical marijuana card.
Meanwhile, the Missouri Highway Patrol’s director of public information and education told the News-Leader Wednesday that “the Patrol has not conducted any training on medical marijuana with county or local agencies” such as the Buffalo Police Department, though it serves on a medical marijuana work group that includes state, county and local law enforcement agencies and the state health department, which is in charge of implementing medical marijuana.
Dan Viets, a Columbia-based lawyer who’s advocated for marijuana reform for years and served as part of the New Approach Missouri group that drafted Amendment 2, said that recently he’s received about a dozen reports of circumstances similar to Mello’s.
In these cases, a Missouri person believes they’re a legal marijuana patient with the paperwork to prove it — but gets charged with a crime anyway.
Patient: ‘They compared me to a drug dealer’
Mello said his case began the afternoon of Oct. 3 in Urbana, where he was spending time with a fishing buddy.
Around midnight, he climbed into his red Dodge pickup and set out for home in Walnut Grove. Thirty to 40 minutes after he left Urbana, he said, two city police officers pulled Mello over near a bank in Buffalo, population 3,074.
According to a probable cause statement filed Nov. 8, Buffalo police determined Mello did not have two working headlights as required by law. They pulled him over.
Mello disputes the particulars: He said his headlights were fine but that his license plate light was burned out.
Marijuana soon became the subject of dispute, according to both the police statement and Mello’s account. They agree that Mello had a couple of grams of cannabis and a pipe in his glove box.
Questioned repeatedly by the News-Leader, Mello stated he did not drive while impaired. He said seven hours or more elapsed between the time he ingested cannabis in Urbana (“4 or 5 p.m.”) and the time he was pulled over in Buffalo. He was not cited for driving under the influence.
Mello said he provided the Buffalo officers with a digital copy of his Missouri medical marijuana card.
“I tell them, ‘Look, I’ve got all this provenance, I’ve got all the emails from the state,'” Mello told the News-Leader.
The conversation did not go well, he said.
“They compared me to a drug dealer, a heroin addict, a drunk driver, a faker, a fraud, charlatan, a scammer,” Mello said Monday. “I can list all kinds of things that were just horrible things, that you don’t say to somebody.”
Buffalo police did not accept the evidence Mello showed, according to their probable cause statement.
Mello told the newspaper that one of the officers said his card was a “fake.”
“Because they’re not even issuing cards until December,” Mello says one of the Buffalo officers told him.
In fact, Missouri began issuing medical marijuana cards to patients shortly after the state began taking applications on June 28 and has approved roughly 1,000 new marijuana patients per week since that time.
Police gave Mello tickets for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, according to Mello, who provided photos of the tickets to the News-Leader.
He was later charged with possession, according to a court filing dated Nov. 8.
‘Save a copy of your digital ID card’
One quirk of Missouri’s implementation of medical cannabis — it is the 33rd state to do so — is that the Show-Me State does not mail out physical cards to marijuana patients once they are approved.
This has prompted confusion in online forums frequented by newly-approved cardholders, who often ask each other when they can expect their card to be delivered in the mail.
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services officials said in a Wednesday email that the cost of issuing physical cards would have been “significant.”
They researched what happened in other medical marijuana states and found that “Missouri could accomplish the same level of security offered by a physical card simply by pairing a digital card with a government-issued ID.”
It’s also possible for law enforcement to verify a card with DHSS or through systems being developed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the state health department said.
“It was clear the expense of issuing physical cards would be an unnecessary drain on the Veterans Health Fund,” health officials said. Per the constitutional amendment voters approved, taxes and fees generated by Missouri’s medical marijuana system are supposed to be used to help military veterans.
What are marijuana patients supposed to do to remain lawful? The state medical marijuana website instructs Missouri patients to log onto a third-party website and then “save a copy of your digital ID card to your device and print it off for your records.”
In November, Mello provided the News-Leader with a digital copy of his card. He said he showed Buffalo police the same digital card when they pulled him over back in October. Mello’s smartphone screenshots appear to come from mycomplia.com, the third-party website used by the Missouri government to issue medical marijuana cards.
Mello said he downloaded his card from mycomplia.com as instructed by the state. He saved one copy onto his phone’s lock screen, then put another copy in the phone’s photo folder.
The card image reviewed by the News-Leader shows that Mello is a “medical marijuana qualifying patient” and an “authorized cultivator,” meaning he may use and possess cannabis — regardless of its source, according to previous Missouri health department statements — and that he is allowed to grow up to a 90-day supply. The card indicates Mello’s marijuana approval expires on Sept. 17, 2020. It includes a patient ID number along with Mello’s date of birth.
Like all other Missouri medical marijuana cards, Mello’s card does not list his Social Security number, nor does it list health problems that led him to apply for cannabis as a treatment.
But Mello provided the News-Leader with a copy of his physician certification form, also obtained from mycomplia.com. Mello said that while applying for his card, he uploaded his doctor paperwork to the website, as instructed by the state.
That paperwork shows that Lisa Roark, a Cassville physician, certified Mello on Sept. 3 for a recommended dosage of 4 ounces of cannabis per month. The weed is supposed to address “migraines unresponsive to treatment.” Mello told the News-Leader he also has back problems and issues with meningitis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Contacted this week, DHSS officials declined to confirm to the newspaper whether the department issued Mello a marijuana card, citing a portion of the amendment prohibiting state health authorities from releasing patient information.
But DHSS officials said that law enforcement is able to call them for confirmation.
“Our staff have established processes for first confirming the caller is actually law enforcement and, after confirming, will verify whether an individual is in possession a valid ID card of any type,” officials said in a response to detailed questions from the News-Leader. “The MO Highway Patrol is also developing an integration with MULES (the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System) to perform the same function.”
Law enforcement procedures
It is not clear whether Buffalo police contacted authorities with DHSS or the Highway Patrol to verify whether Mello was legal, or trying to pass off a fake card. Mello stated that police did not do so during the traffic stop.
The News-Leader contacted Buffalo police repeatedly for this report beginning on Nov. 21. The department repeatedly declined to release copies of the marijuana citations issued to Mello or any other reports tied to the case.
Arrest reports and incident reports are open records under the Missouri Sunshine Law, although some other documents may be withheld while an investigation is ongoing.
On Dec. 4, a police department representative told the News-Leader, “I believe that I am not able to help you. I don’t have any information for you. Thank you, goodbye,” before ending the call.
By then, Mello had already been issued a summons dated Nov. 13 to face the misdemeanor possession charge in Dallas County courts.
The News-Leader also contacted Barker, Dallas County prosecutor, on Dec. 4.
Barker confirmed at that time — two days before he said he sent out a letter of dismissal — that Mello “has a pending charge and public documents are available on Case.net.”
Buffalo Police Chief Rich Wilkinson, reached via email Tuesday with the help of the Buffalo city clerk’s office, declined to respond to detailed questions sent in writing by the News-Leader.
The questions pertained to both Mello’s case and general procedures at his department — including whether Buffalo officers had received any updated medical marijuana training since voters changed the law.
In a Tuesday email, Wilkinson stated he would not be available to respond to questions before deadline for this report. “I am out of the office this week and have not had the opportunity to review the case in question or speak with the officers involved,” Wilkinson wrote.
Mello said that during the traffic stop that Buffalo police conducted more than two months ago, officers seemed unfamiliar with Missouri’s lawful medical marijuana system.
He told the News-Leader, “All of the evidence I produced — they said I could create a website, the email chain, the mycomplia(.com) — because it wasn’t a .gov website, (one of the Buffalo police officers) said that was a fraud. And you know, that’s the state login. When I logged into that, they said that was a fake because it wasn’t a .gov website.”
(A “.gov website” refers to government websites such as medicalmarijuana.mo.gov.)
The News-Leader asked the state health department this week whether a digital marijuana card is acceptable, or if it must be presented in paper form only.
DHSS officials said in a written response, “A medical marijuana card holder may keep and produce their ID card in either format. We do advise patients to print a copy to have with them in case of mobile device failure, but this is not required.”
Viets, the pro-marijuana lawyer who helped write the law, agreed. “Article 14 says clearly it can be in almost any form,” he said Monday. “Electronic and printed are clearly both valid.”
Buffalo police examined Mello’s digital documents before deciding he did not have a valid card, according to their probable cause statement.
“Jeramy Mello showed me an email which appeared to be from the Department of Health and Senior Service authorizing him to cultivate marijuana,” wrote the Buffalo officer who filed the statement. “Jeramy Mello was unable to produce a valid medical marijuana card for a qualifying disability. Jeramy Mello was not able to produce a Missouri license to transport marijuana.”
Viets reviewed this portion of the statement at the News-Leader’s request and expressed surprise that a “transport” license was mentioned.
“There is no requirement that a patient have a transport license — that costs $5,000,” Viets said, making an apparent reference to fees charged by the state to businesses wanting a commercial marijuana transport license.
“That’s absurd,” Viets added.
Where law enforcement can call to verify a card
The News-Leader reached out to Kelli Jones, communications director for Gov. Mike Parson, to learn if the state executive branch has issued any direction to the Highway Patrol and local law enforcement on how to handle medical marijuana.
Jones said in a Wednesday email, “The Governor’s Office has not dictated to state agencies how they should handle this issue.”
Jones said that during business hours, DHSS staffs a toll-free number that officers may use to verify whether someone is a lawful marijuana patient: 866-219-0165.
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Nationwide ‘education gaps’
Missouri is not alone in facing confusion while setting up a medical cannabis system, said Alyson Martin. Martin is a journalist who co-founded CannabisWire, a New York-based news provider focused on marijuana business, policy and research around the world.
“Cannabis laws continue to evolve across the country,” she told the News-Leader Wednesday. “But the patchwork remains, and people are often caught in education gaps. One of those areas, we’ve learned, is with law enforcement. Local police are not always informed about rapidly changing medical cannabis laws, and enforcement response from jurisdiction to jurisdiction has not always been uniform.”
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