If the tenor of last week’s meeting of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee is any guide, lawmakers are looking to pass a very limited medical marijuana bill.
The Senate committee hearing was the first time that lawmakers have addressed the issue since the state Supreme Court overturned Initiative 65, which would’ve created a medical marijuana program enshrined in the state constitution.
Lawmakers have been goaded to act by election results from last November. Of the 68 percent of voters who voted yes on the ballot measure on whether to allow medical marijuana, nearly 74 percent of them voted for Initiative 65 over the legislative alternative that would’ve created a very tightly controlled program, if at all.
The options as detailed by committee chairman, state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, for lawmakers would be to pass a tightly regulated medical program (Alabama’s new law being a good example), a loosely regulated medical program or possibly a recreational program.
Short of Gov. Tate Reeves calling a special session, any new bill that would create a medical marijuana bill will have to wait until next year’s session in January and it could be 2023 or later before a program created by the Legislature could be issuing cards and permits to cannabis-related businesses.
Implementation would take months, according to state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs since the state Department of Health would have to start up labs to test the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component in the cannabis plant, in each of the products that would be sold in the program. The department, along with the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce and the state Department of Revenue, would have to write new regulations governing such a program.
Taxes would also have to be an issue with any potential medical marijuana program, since Initiative 65 would’ve required program revenues to stay in the program with no disbursements to the state’s general fund, which provides money for most state agencies, and local governments.
All but one of the witnesses who testified before the committee were opponents of Initiative 65.
State Sen. Bryce Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, is a former prosecutor who suggested that maybe a recreational bill that would remove the need for doctors to certify patients to participate in any program, something that Dr. Dobbs told lawmakers that many physicians statewide aren’t comfortable doing.
“Why don’t we just go recreational?” Wiggins asked Ken Newburger, the executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association. “I mean from the criminal justice side of this we've lowered the penalties on marijuana (first possession offense of 30 grams is punishable by a $250 fine and a civil summons). There's been other states that thing New York just went, recreational and if we go recreational then we don't have to do it as we just regulated like we do alcohol or something.”
Newburger said he couldn’t answer that question since his organization was concerned with medical marijuana.
Dobbs said that there would be consequences to a medical marijuana program and that any created should protect vulnerable Mississippians, such as teens, youth and pregnant women. He also said that the drug isn’t a panacea and won’t get the state out of the present opioid abuse crisis.
The state’s health officer also advocated for strict limits on dosages of THC, such as with pain medications. Physicians without a pain medicine credential are limited to issuing 50 milligrams or less of tablets.
A loosely regulated medical marijuana program, aligned closely with the Oklahoma model, would’ve been created by Initiative 65. The program in Oklahoma has 380,000 active patients and 10,000 registered cannabis businesses that have generated $127 million in state and local taxes from medical cannabis in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department of Health had already started the regulatory process, which would’ve been mandated to be complete by July 1.
Doctors nationwide can’t write prescriptions for medical marijuana and it can’t be handled by conventional pharmacies since it is designated a Schedule I drug by the federal government, which means it is a drug of abuse without any therapeutic use. The Schedule I designation, which could be removed by Congress, has also hampered research into the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant.
One guide could be Alabama’s medical marijuana bill, which the Alabama Legislature passed in May. This program would allow medical cannabis for 15 categories of conditions and symptoms and is an example of a tightly controlled medical marijuana program.
Smokeable and edible cannabis products would not be allowed under the Alabama plan, but tablets, capsules, tinctures or gel cubes along with topical products and nebulizers would be permitted.
Daily doses of THC would be capped at 50 milligrams daily and later increased to 75 milligrams after 90 days.
Patients could have 60 daily doses at a time and have up to 70 in their possession. The number of dispensaries statewide would be capped at 27 locations.
A 9 percent tax would be assessed on gross sales and businesses doing business in cannabis would have to pay an annual tax.