In addition to voting for president and a U.S. Senate seat, Mississippi voters will decide on the fate of a possible medical marijuana program in Mississippi on November 3.
There are two on the ballot, Initiative 65 and Initiative 65A, the legislative alternative passed by the Legislature. For either of them to become part of the state’s constitution, they must receive more than 40 percent of votes cast in the election.
The original initiative is supported by Americans for Prosperity, the Mississippi Sickle Cell Foundation, some physicians and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, including state representatives Joel Bomgar, R-Madison and DeKeither Stamps, D-Jackson.
It is opposed by local governments, law enforcement, Mississippi Realtors, the state Medical Board and the Mississippi Medical Association, along with former Gov. Phil Bryant, House Speaker Philip Gunn, agriculture commissioner Andy Gipson and others.
The final of five statewide hearings was held October 13 and both sides explained why their view should prevail. If the measure passes, Mississippi would become the 35th state to enact a program that advocates say is needed to help those with debilitating pain, seizures or loss of appetite due to various medical conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sickle cell anemia and multiple sclerosis.
Opponents say that medical marijuana will curb the rights of municipalities to tax and even decide whether they want dispensaries in their areas. An opt-out provision that is allowed in both California and Colorado, both of which have recreational sales as well, which allows municipalities to decide not to allow dispensaries in their communities.
Initiative 65 requires dispensaries to be 500 feet away from schools, churches or licensed child care centers, but doesn’t have an opt-out clause like those two states and mandates that dispensaries be treated no differently than a licensed retail pharmacy or any comparably sized and staffed business.
“Ultimately it became clear that Initiative 65 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Jim Perry, a member of the state Board of Health. “While Initiative 65 is being marketed as medicine, 65 is more about giving constitutional protections to a $14 billion out-of-state industry that believes in driving profits by promoting addiction.
“Nowhere in our state constitution is there an example of any product having constitutional protections as Initiative 65 gives the marijuana industry.”
Three out of the 34 states with a medical marijuana program have it as part of their constitution.
Perry also said that medical marijuana won’t reduce the number of opioid-related overdoses, but a 2014 study by three physicians —Marcus Bachhuber, Brendan Solner and Chinazo Cunningham — doesn’t support this assertion. The study says that medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state level opioid overdose mortality rates.
A 2017 study found that after cannabis was legalized for recreation in Colorado, opioid-related deaths fell dramatically.
Perry also said that because medical marijuana would be enshrined in the state constitution, the Legislature would be unable to make substantive changes to the program.
Proponents of the initiative say that going the expensive and time-consuming initiative route was the only one left to them after lawmakers declined to do anything in the last 20 years. They say the Legislature has had 20 years to enact a medical marijuana program, but lawmakers have passed on doing so, with 20 bills dying without a floor vote that would’ve started a program.
The Legislative Budget Office said in a fiscal analysis that the cost or revenue impact of implementing a program under the guidelines of 65A is undeterminable. The alternative also has no deadlines under which a program could be started and no requirement that the Legislature even enact a program.
In comparison, 65 is designed to be a self-sustaining program that pays for itself with user fees (up to $50 for a medical marijuana card that allows a patient or a caregiver to purchase marijuana) and taxes up to 7 percent, which is the same rate as the state’s sales tax. Opponents correctly point out that none of the tax revenues from the sale of medical marijuana would be allowed to go to the state’s general fund, which provides money for most state agencies and would go back into the program.
The program would use $2.5 million in a credit line from state funds to start up the program, which would be run by the state Department of Health. This agency would have to adopt rules and regulations for the program by July 1, 2021 and must be issuing licenses by August 15, 2021.
Marijuana would be allowed under 65 for 20 qualifying conditions, while 65A would only allow terminally ill patients to smoke cannabis products.
Also, 65A has no specifics on how a program would work and whether the state would be allowed to regulate the price of the product, something that isn’t part of 65, which its advocates say uses a free market approach.
Mississippi’s potential program would allow patients to buy up to 2.5 ounces for their use every two weeks, which would be the same as seven other states: Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island. A designated caregiver would also have rights under the program to procure medical marijuana for a patient, which is not in 65A.
Arkansas, which has a more heavily regulated marijuana program, allows a higher amount every two weeks (three ounces). Louisiana allows patients to buy a 30-day supply.
The state’s ballot initiative process allows the Legislature to submit an alternative that lawmakers say provides voters with another choice and critics say acts to confuse voters.
“When they put Initiative 65A on the ballot, they deprived voters of a the opportunity for a fair up or down vote in an effort to split the vote so that neither measure passes,” said Jamie Grantham, the communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care, the group that is behind Initiative 65. “It is a backdoor kill measure to block medical marijuana.”
Recent history indicates that any attempt to confuse voters will likely end in failure.
The most recent case of the legislative alternative was during the fight over Initiative 42 in 2015, which would’ve given the Hinds County Chancery Court the power to appropriate more state money through injunctions for individual school districts who filed lawsuits.
The Legislature passed an alternative, Initiative 42A, and the original initiative died by a 51.66 percent to 46.98 percent margin. The difference between those who voted to approve 42 and the alternative was 8,933 votes or about two percentage points. Ultimately, the alternative didn’t inflict enough damage to 42 to hasten its demise with voters.