The steady opposition to legalizing medical marijuana is certain to continue up to the Nov. 3 election, when voters will weigh in on two proposed constitutional amendments.
The latest group to come out against the idea is the Mississippi Municipal League, which represents the interests of cities in the state. They actually have a reasonable argument for opposing the legal, regulated sale of medical marijuana: Cities will not get any of the sales taxes the product generates.
The MML is correct. The writers of Initiative 65, as the proposal is known, made a tactical error (or a boneheaded decision) by cutting cities out of medical marijuana’s sales tax revenue.
Initiative 65, if voters approve it, gives the Mississippi Department of Health the responsibility of overseeing a medical marijuana program. It says the department can apply an extra charge up to the state sales tax rate to the final sale of medical marijuana.
However, this money will not be part of the state’s general fund. Initiative 65 specifically directs that this tax be put into its own fund. The Department of Health will have authority to spend the money for administration and enforcement costs of the program.
The state gives 18.5 percent of sales taxes collected in a city to that municipality. (Unincorporated or rural areas that produce sales taxes get none of it back from the state.) But since the proposed amendment directs the tax revenue from medical marijuana to be spent differently, it’s no surprise that the municipal group doesn’t want its members to lose the revenue.
Other recent criticism of Initiative 65 includes a column by Andy Gipson, the commissioner of agriculture and commerce. He says it would be a mistake to let the unelected people at the Department of Health make decisions about medical marijuana.
“Why in the name of anything decent would Mississippians vote to give complete and total control over medical marijuana to the Mississippi Department of Health?” Gipson asked. “Why would we vote to give complete and total control over anything to any unelected state agency?
The answer to that question is simple: the Legislature chose not to address medical marijuana, probably fearing voter backlash if it considered legalizing a drug that long has been illegal.
Those fears may be accurate, but Initiative 65 is a long way from making marijuana completely legal in Mississippi. It would be limited to people with “debilitating medical conditions,” and lists 22 such conditions that qualify.
The point is that by ignoring the issue, the Legislature opened the door for advocates to gather enough signatures to put Initiative 65 to a vote of the people. Which they did.
Lawmakers then got so alarmed at the idea of letting the people decide (apparently this is a suitable concept only for choosing a state flag) that they came up with a medical marijuana proposal of their own. Alternative 65A is far less specific, and will be on the Nov. 3 ballot with Initiative 65.
The Department of Health’s board already is on record as opposing Initiative 65, meaning that the people who set policy for the department don’t want to be involved with medical marijuana. More opposition in the coming weeks is likely and understandable. After all, it took Mississippi more than three decades to officially end Prohibition. By that calendar, when it comes to legalizing a drug to help the sick, we are a bit ahead of schedule.
It’s hard to say whether voters will approve of selling marijuana for medical treatment. It seems like a long shot, but it may depend on how many people with a debilitating medical condition get out to vote — and especially whether the families of deceased patients who could have been helped by the drug decide this is worth a try.