For Missouri Lawyers Media’s 2019 Lawyers of the Year, the November election was a nail-biter.
As members on the board of directors for New Approach Missouri, which put the medical-marijuana measure known as Amendment 2 on the ballot, Joseph D. “Chip” Sheppard III, Dan Viets and Michael B. Hill were confident that voters would be on their side. The main problem was, their side was awfully crowded.
New Approach’s measure was one of three medical marijuana-related items for voters to consider. Competing against it was another proposed amendment to the state constitution, as well as a measure that would have legalized medical marijuana via statute. For Sheppard, Viets and Hill, the fear was that voters might pass all three measures and give the state too much of a good thing.
“When you look at just the ballot summary of each one, there’s not a huge difference,” Hill said. “And the fact that voters took the time to learn about the different initiatives and voted for ours only — frankly, it was shocking to me. I thought all three would pass, and we’d be mired in litigation even now.”
In the end, New Approach’s measure won not just a victory, but a mandate. More than 1.5 million Missourians voted “yes” on Amendment 2, constituting nearly two-thirds of the vote. The competing Amendment 3 lost by an even more decisive margin, with 68 percent of voters rejecting it. The statutory measure, Proposition C, also lost by a comfortable margin.
Not every legal battle is won in the courtroom. Missouri Lawyers Media is honoring Sheppard, Viets and Hill for their work on a measure that will transform the state’s legal landscape. The legalization of medical marijuana will affect practice areas far and wide, from employment law to gun rights to criminal defense to regulatory approaches.
“I’m expecting that all of us are going to be firehose-down-the-throat busy over the next few years,” Sheppard said.
And yet Amendment 2 was not a bomb lobbed into the state constitution without regard to the consequences. As radical as the idea of medical marijuana might have seemed just a few years ago, New Approach’s approach was rather conservative. With 31 states already having approved similar measures, the lawyers did what lawyers do: They looked to precedent and crafted a measure that they hope will avoid some of the pitfalls that other states have encountered.
“Coming relatively late to the game, we had the benefit of seeing what had happened elsewhere,” Viets said. “So we tried to make the most of that.”
Our Lawyers of the Year represent a broad cross-section of Missouri’s attorney population. Viets, a solo practitioner in Columbia, has been working on marijuana-related issues since the 1970s with such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Sheppard is a shareholder in the litigation and dispute-resolution practice group at Carnahan, Evans, Cantwell & Brown, a business and corporate law firm in Springfield. And Hill is the founder of St. Louis-based Canna Jurist, believed to be the only law firm in the state solely dedicated to the medical-marijuana industry.
The roots of the medical-marijuana campaign lie in two legal matters. Viets represented Jeff Mizanskey, who after three felony convictions for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses had been sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2015, following a long campaign by the ACLU and Show-Me Cannabis, a Missouri-based drug-reform group, Gov. Jay Nixon commuted Mizanskey’s sentence.
Viets said that battle, while not directly related to the medicinal use of marijuana, “definitely related to the turning tide of even politicians’ opinion on the matter.”
Meanwhile, Sheppard in 2014 had led a federal lawsuit against the city of Springfield after its city council repealed a citizen-backed ordinance that would have decriminalized marijuana possession. Although Springfield officials didn’t admit fault, the city agreed to pay $225,000 to settle the matter. Sheppard said a portion of that money was used to conduct statewide polling on medical marijuana, which indicated that such a proposal could pass.
“We were off to the races,” Sheppard said.
Hill got involved with New Approach in 2016, when the organization sought to place a measure before voters but failed to get enough valid signatures to get on the ballot.
“I spent a good chunk of the two-week litigation period in a law office in St. Louis reviewing thousands of signatures,” he said. When the group tried again, Hill asked to help lead the effort. As a young lawyer, he saw an opportunity to carve out a niche practice in what he hoped would be a growing industry.
“In a sense I put all my eggs in one basket,” he said. “If this didn’t pass in November, I’d have to go back to the drawing board.”
As the only three lawyers on New Approach’s board, Sheppard, Viets and Hill played an outsized role in crafting the language of the amendment. The amendment allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes as determined by a physician and creates a regulatory structure for marijuana facilities. It also imposes a 4 percent sales tax that would fund health and care services for veterans.
The new law went into effect on Dec. 6, though the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services still is in the process of creating applications and laying other regulatory groundwork. Still, Hill said, one of the amendment’s main achievements was to lay out a specific timeline for the agency to set up the process.
“That was really important so that we didn’t have a situation where the voters decided on this, and then it was kind of just up to the department in its discretion to say, ‘We’ll get around to promulgating the regulations, we’ll get around to showing you what an application for a license will look like,’” he said.
Other specific details hashed out in the amendment include a provision allowing patients to grow their own marijuana in limited amounts; prohibiting hospitals from deprioritizing medical-marijuana users as organ recipients; and protecting lawyers and doctors from professional consequences for their involvement with a substance that remains illegal at the federal level.
Sheppard said the overall goal was to create a well-regulated industry in which people could make a fair profit without monopolizing it. His firm has started a marijuana and hemp practice group with eight attorneys who will devote at least some portion of their time addressing the regulatory issues that will arise.
“Knock on wood, it looks like we’ve avoided some of the mistakes [other states] made by just watching their laws play out and seeing where the speedbumps and the potholes were — no pun intended,” he said.
Still, those potholes are sure to come. Viets, who has spent his career largely in criminal defense, also plans to shift to a practice that deals with the nuts and bolts of the newly created industry. But he also assumes he’ll find some patients who have run afoul of the law will need help.
“We hope they won’t need a whole lot of legal services, but inevitably there are going to be disputes arising, and some of those will be criminal defense issues,” he said.
Amendment 2 passed despite facing a stiff campaign from the competing Amendment 3 proposal, which was backed by Springfield attorney and doctor Brad Bradshaw.
Bradshaw spent nearly $2.2 million on his proposal, which would have imposed a 15 percent tax and set up a state research institute. New Approach, in contrast, spent about $1.7 million but concentrated on social media and word of mouth rather than television. In the end, Missourians went with New Approach’s vision.
“I went to bed election night wondering what was going to happen, and then everything lit up,” Sheppard said. “A lot of people I’d never heard of before started calling, emailing, wanting to get into the business. I’ve been meeting with people on an almost daily basis.”
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