DHSS released the first draft of rules on how to obtain a medical marijuana ID card to possess and/or grow weed. Megan Bridgeman, USA TODAY Network
Springfield officials said this week that Queen City municipal government isn’t planning specific efforts to develop the emerging medical marijuana industry.
But that’s not the case elsewhere in the Show-Me State. At least two small towns are taking direct steps to get medical marijuana established in their communities. Their city officials and potential business partners say they’re eager for jobs, technology, better health outcomes, new forms of agriculture and tax revenue.
Medical cannabis trade groups say that for every dollar spent on marijuana in a retail setting, “an additional $3 in economic benefit is realized — much of it at the local level.”
Waynesville and Kennett — rural communities with distinctly different economic and social profiles — are looking at selling or leasing city-owned buildings to companies that are going after the state-issued licenses to grow and sell cannabis that will be awarded out later this year.
“You know, our thought is our industrial park is an ideal location for one of these types of businesses,” Bruce Harrill, Waynesville city administrator, told the News-Leader Thursday. He said it’s about 3,000 feet from the nearest school, day care or church — triple the maximum buffer zone inscribed in Amendment 2.
Waynesville, an 80-mile drive from Springfield on I-44 east, is home to more than 5,200 people. The military base at Fort Leonard Wood is just a few miles away. The town’s median household income ($56,618) and poverty rate (15.8 percent) are better than Springfield’s ($34,775 and 25.7 percent).
And Waynesville city officials are working on a deal to lease or sell a 4.8-acre plot in the town industrial park that includes a 20,000-foot spec building that could be converted into a grow operation with an extraction facility and a dispensary.
The real estate is priced at $859,000, or it could be leased from $8,200 to $9,500 per month, according to a proposal aired at a recent city meeting.
Waynesville’s potential partner is Missouri Essentials LLC, headed up by Paul Bocci, who lives in the Lake of the Ozarks area. Bocci is a self-described “financial person in the medical industry” who also served as treasurer for New Approach Missouri, the main backers of Missouri medical cannabis Amendment 2.
Waynesville’s plan — which is still subject to due-diligence checks and negotiations, Harrill said — is not without opposition in this conservative community. (Pulaski County broke for U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley with more than 67 percent of the vote in November. Statewide, he won by 51.4 percent.)
The Pulaski County Daily News, a one-man Facebook page that serves an area that no longer has much in the way of news organizations, ran an opinion piece Wednesday strongly denouncing the city’s efforts to get the cannabis industry in town.
Harrill said he disagreed with the editorial’s assertion that despite Missouri Amendment 2, cannabis is “illegal.” (It is, under federal law.) Harrill also said only a few people showed up at the recent hearing to comment on the proposal, and the social media post had prompted “a lot of discussion.”
Meanwhile, 58.3 percent of Pulaski County voters chose Amendment 2 last November.
Bocci, with Missouri Essentials, said Waynesville was “very open” to considering an agreement with his company.
“They understood the law,” he said. “They would rather be on the leading edge of it than the tail end of it.”
In Bocci’s view, medical cannabis will help rural Missourians by offering an alternative to opioid pain management. Missouri opioid overdose deaths rose elevenfold in recent years, climbing from 56 dead in 2012 to 618 in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Missouri’s opioid-overdose death rate is higher than the overall U.S. death rate.
Bocci himself lost a family member to opioids, he said.
“Oh, it’s huge,” Bocci said. “It’s huge here, it’s huge in Lebanon, all over the state of Missouri.”
Meanwhile, a 2014 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that from 1999 to 2010, states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8-percent lower rate of opioid overdose deaths.
That lower death rate, the study authors wrote, “generally strengthened over time” in the medical cannabis states.
Kennett seeks ‘quality jobs’
Kennett is pretty different from Waynesville. It’s in the Missouri Bootheel, closer to the Arkansas line and the Mississippi River than to centers of activity like Poplar Bluff or Sikeston. And county residents gave plenty of their votes to Hawley: 72.7 percent, five more points than Pulaski County and nearly 18 points better than Greene County.
Kennett also has almost twice as many people as Waynesville, but its households earn almost $26,000 less per year. Almost 30 percent of the community lives in poverty. Dunklin County ranks 111th of 115 Missouri counties in overall health outcomes — one slot above the city of St. Louis.
So it may come as no surprise that Kennett is looking to get a dispensary and grow operation into the former Dunklin County Cotton Compress works, a 50,000-square foot building owned by the city government as part of an 80-acre site that includes several other industrial buildings.
Tim McPherson, a Kennett physician, is looking to run a company based in the building, said Jim Grebing, Kennett director of economic development. He said the company wants to create a series of four dispensaries running along the I-55 corridor between St. Louis and the Bootheel.
“It’s not a huge job creator,” Grebing acknowledged in a Thursday interview with the News-Leader. “It might be 15 or 20 jobs.”
But Grebing is playing a long game, seeking new assets that the community could leverage for profits.
Adding high-tech indoor agriculture, and well-paid people with hydroponics know-how, could one day allow Kennett to not just grow cannabis year-round, but also other cash crops. Think tomatoes in December.
Grebing hopes cannabis development can be part of new activities that would allow Kennett to become a “food hub.” Besides agriculture, cannabis could promote other types of businesses: Security. Transportation and distribution. Cold storage.
Grebing said cannabis is not the only play Kennett’s making: Its location in the greater Mississippi River valley is a selling point.
“We’re like everybody else in Missouri, we’re very strategically located in terms of markets,” he said.
Grebing also said cannabis is not a replacement for courting more traditional business.
“We’re still trying to find that nice big manufacturer and go after large employers,” he told the News-Leader, “but these (cannabis jobs) will be quality jobs that pay well and bring some good expertise to the community.”
Like his counterparts in Waynesville, Grebing said the deal has yet to be done. The old compress building is worth about $265,000, and he figures McPherson and his St. Louis partners would have to kick in at least another $250,000 to upgrade the real estate for high-tech indoor agriculture — assuming state government awards the company the marijuana business licenses they’ll need to legally operate.
In time, Grebing said it might be possible to add land to the deal to allow for construction of more canopy space for indoor growing, or even marijuana product manufacturing.
He said there had not been significant opposition to the plans. In Dunklin County, 59.8 percent of voters went for Amendment 2.
“The people of Missouri and the Bootheel have studied this issue, paid attention to it and felt like it was a good way to go about dealing with medical marijuana,” he said.
Is canna-biz eligible for any help?
Sarah Kerner, economic development director for the city of Springfield, said that there is no city-owned property “being requested or discussed” for lease to a company that wants to trade in marijuana once Missouri’s system is up and running in 2020.
Meanwhile, Kerner said in comments relayed through a city spokesperson, city loan programs with ties to federal money are off-limits for would-be cannabusinesses.
That’s not due to any decision on Springfield’s part, or any other local government. Marijuana remains federally illegal as a Schedule 1 drug. It’s listed alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy for having a “high potential for abuse.”
But cannabis businesses might be able to take advantage of some existing programs not tied to the federal government.
Community improvement districts or tax-increment financing (CIDs and TIFs) would “operate the same regardless of the type of business” seeking the tax breaks, Kerner said. And manufacturing operations like extraction facilities might be eligible for Enhanced Enterprise Zone incentives.
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