A Year of Obstruction on Medical Cannabis In Mississippi Comes to an End

The journey here has been a lengthy saga in the abuse of power by the prohibitionist lawmakers and bureaucrats of the Hospitality state who fought tooth and nail against the will of their constituents at every step in the process. It is evident through all of their constant obstruction that, without the overwhelming consent of the voters, state lawmakers in Mississippi would’ve never bothered to pass legislation to improve the quality of life of their constituents. Luckily for the people of Mississippi, state law allows voters to organize ballot initiative campaigns that, with enough signatures, can put important reforms directly before the voters. 

Initiative 65 was a plan to extend access to patients with 22 qualifying conditions, allow possession of up to 2.5 ounces of medical cannabis, extend comprehensive legal protections, and impose a 7 percent tax rate on medical cannabis purchases. The initiative also had language giving the state department of health authority to set up and regulate the program independent of the state legislature. To get on the 2020 ballot, an initiative would need to submit 85,185 valid signatures (12% of the total votes cast for governor in the previous election) by October 9th 2019. The Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign collected 105,686 valid signatures and turned them into the state in September 2019.

Mississippi has an indirect initiative system. This means that after a successful submission of signatures, but before the bill is placed on the ballot, the initiative is submitted to the legislature where they are given four months to ultimately take one of three actions on it: In the first, legislators choose to skip placing the measure on the ballot and adopt as law it right away via majority vote in both houses; this is the only action where an initiative will not reach the ballot. In the second action, legislators can choose to send the proposal to the ballot as-is and  leave the decision to voters. The third action legislators can take involves creating a competing ballot measure to appear against the original initiative Mississippi’s lawmakers took the third action.

Though Initiative 65 had support from Mississippi state Democrats, and several physician groups; its opponents were numerous, including the house and senate majority Republicans, the governor, the Mississippi State Department of Health, plus the Department of Agriculture and Commerce, the Mississippi State Medical Association, the American Medical Association, and various law enforcement groups. These obstructionists filed competing ballot Initiative 65A which stripped away the legal protections, access to caregivers, and any cohesive regulatory framework, leaving voters with what was essentially a dubious promise that they would get around to medical cannabis eventually. In November, it would be up to voters to decide between the more comprehensive Initiative 65 or the stripped away empty shell of 65A.

On election day, Mississippi voters faced a multi-step voting process. To pass the measure, electors first needed to vote in support of the state allowing medical cannabis access.  Voters responded with 67.9 percent in support. The next part of the ballot question asked the preference of voters to Initiative 65 or 65A. Voters chose the original Initiative 65 by an overwhelming 74.1% of votes cast in its favor. It was the most popular item on the ballot, significantly outperforming Donald Trump, who won the state's electors.

The popularity of the measure was undeniable, but the obstructionists already had a backup plan if the voters did something they wouldn’t like.

At the end of October, just a week before the election, the Mayor of Madison filed a lawsuit against Initiative 65 with the Mississippi Supreme Court. He alleged that the signature collection as submitted to the Secretary of State was unconstitutional. The Mississippi constitution stipulates that no more than 1/5th of the signatures for an initiative can be from the same congressional district. The court heard arguments from each side in April and made their decision in May. The court ruled in a 6-3 decision to throw out the election results due to Initiative 65’s non-compliance with signature requirements.

As the court was preparing to hear the trial, the old allies of Initiative 65 in the senate were joined by some colleagues who had a change of heart after seeing the popularity of the measure at the ballot box. Together, these senators managed to pass SB 2765 which was a version similar to the original initiative but without the provisions for the department of health to set up and regulate the program independently. Ultimately, this bill failed to pass in the house.

On January 26th, 2022 the state legislature passed SB 2095, an offensively watered down vision for medical cannabis in Mississippi. Patients will be limited to 1/8th of cannabis a day at dispensaries, an amount that would be funny if it didn’t mean a massive inconvenience for patients in the state. Patients will have to work hard to meet their monthly allotment of 2 ounces, as doing so would require them to make 24 separate trips. The bill limits cannabis businesses to operate in industrial or agricultural zones, it also outlines a timeline of 6 months from the effective date to begin licensing cannabis businesses, and provides limits for products of 30% THC for flower, 60% for concentrates. Unlike the original initiative, it does not include a provision for personal cultivation.