Mississippi’s medical marijuana disaster
37533811 © Glenn Nagel | Dreamstime.com


Mississippi’s medical marijuana disaster

After a popular ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana was struck down, Mississippi policymakers struggle to devise a legislative solution.

In late 2020, Mississippi voters approved a historic ballot initiative that would’ve created one of the freest markets for medical marijuana in the nation. Initiative 65 called for medical marijuana identification cards that would cost patients no more than $50, declared taxes on medical marijuana would not exceed the state’s regular sales tax rate, and set no artificial limits on the number of licensed medical marijuana businesses in the state.  Mississippi’s medical marijuana initiative was approved by an overwhelming majority, garnering more than 68 percent of the vote.  Then in choosing between Initiative 65 and a competing amendment offered by the state legislature that included more strict limitations on the medical marijuana market, 74 percent voted for Initiative 65.

Mississippi’s medical marijuana market was supposed to be implemented by July 2021.  However, following its overwhelming passage, the mayor of Madison City filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the initiative and was ultimately successful in the Mississippi Supreme Court. 

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s argument was far-reaching. She effectively said that no initiative passed in Mississippi over the past 20 years could be valid because state law requires petitioners to collect a minimum percentage of signatures in each of the state’s five former congressional districts to qualify an initiative for the ballot.  After reapportionment in 2000, Mississippi lost a congressional seat and now only has four, making it impossible to comply with those provisions.  Even though the secretary of state relied on an attorney general’s opinion that it could calculate signature submissions based on the boundaries of the old districts, the state Supreme Court ultimately sided with Mayor Butler and fellow opponents of the medical marijuana initiative to overturn the new law.

Since that time, state lawmakers have debated whether to create a more limited medical marijuana market in Mississippi.  During the 2021 legislative session, Republican State Sen. Kevin Blackwell introduced Senate Bill 2765, which was very similar to the legislatively proposed competing initiative that Initiative 65 beat on the 2020 ballot.  That bill passed the State Senate but died in the House last March.  Relative to the highly popular Initiative 65, it included several key drawbacks:

  • Senate Bill 2765 would have expired just three years after its effective date, potentially resulting in an abrupt closure to the state’s new legal medical marijuana program.  Moreover, several of the critical rulemaking requirements included no deadlines for adoption, meaning the executive branch could have run out the clock on the authorizing statute without ever implementing its provisions.
  • It would have restricted patient eligibility by excluding sufferers of “chronic or debilitating pain,” “intractable nausea,” and “severe muscle spasticity,” or “another medical condition of the same kind of class…and for which a physician believes the benefits of using medical marijuana would reasonably outweigh potential health risks.” Each of those conditions were allowable under Initiative 65 and medical research suggests marijuana can be an effective treatment for these conditions.
  • It would have required applicants for a business license to operate a medical marijuana facility to have been residents of Mississippi for five consecutive years—a clear violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause.
  • It would have assigned patients to a single dispensary from which they’d be allowed to purchase medical marijuana based on the patient’s zip code. This anti-competitive provision would render the medical marijuana market similar to public school systems in which some families are zoned into failing schools without any realistic alternatives.
  • It would have created a two-tier tax system, with medical marijuana taxed at four percent of the wholesale price and seven percent of the retail price.  By contrast, Initiative 65 would have assessed marijuana taxes at no greater a level than the prevailing general sales tax rate.  Indeed, many medical programs do not impose additional excise taxes because it’s recognized that patients are acquiring a medical product.

As Mississippi looks toward the 2022 legislative session, a new version of marijuana legalization legislation is under debate. That plan seems to face misguided, opposition from Gov. Tate Reeves, who at recent press conference, laid out his items of contention with the medical marijuana proposal.  First, the governor claims the law would allow for too much medical marijuana to be sold:

“If 10 percent of Mississippi residents get a marijuana card, that’s 300,000 Mississippians [that] will have a marijuana card.  Under the law in its most recent draft, you can get up to 3.5 grams of the product.  Now…the proponents of this particular bill love to talk about grams and they love to talk about all these other things that nobody fully understands.  But if you look…3.5 grams would allow for all 300,000 Mississippians with a marijuana card to get up to 11 joints a day.  11 joints a day.  It is my view that when you allow 300,000 Mississippians to get 11 joints a day, or approximately 3.3 million joints a day, or almost 1.2 billion joints over a year, that at some point that has become no longer medical marijuana, but recreational marijuana.  If there are 1.2 billion joints floating around Mississippi in any one year, I believe…it is no longer for the purpose of helping those who badly need it.”

Most pre-roll offerings in regulated marijuana markets include either a half-gram or full gram of marijuana, meaning 3.5 grams equates to somewhere between three and seven joints.  Regardless, few patients or consumers purchase from a dispensary every day and some patients may require greater dosing than others depending on their condition.  Gov. Reeves appears to be substituting his medical wisdom for that of the state’s physicians.

Second, the governor argues that workforce participation will decline if medical marijuana is permitted in the state.  There’s no evidence this is true—other states with medical marijuana laws have not experienced a decline in workforce participation and Mississippi currently has the lowest workforce participation rate among all states even without any form of legal marijuana. In fact, to the extent patients are able to successfully treat severe health conditions, it’s reasonable to think a medical marijuana program could allow some disabled individuals to return to the workforce.

Finally, Gov. Reeves argues, “I think the crime and other things that go along with [legalized marijuana]…are likely to go up.” 

Again, crime rates have not accelerated in states with legal medical marijuana programs.  In fact, legal marijuana programs have been associated with a decrease in crime among border states as demand shifts from illegal drug cartels toward legitimate businesses.

Gov. Reeves argues bill sponsors should “recognize that maybe 1.2 billion joints is too many and significantly reduce the total amount of marijuana that can be received.”

The arguments raised by Gov. Reeves and his allies amount to a series of red herrings.  Mississippi’s lawmakers should be looking to the initiative the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved. Rather than make false claims about medical marijuana, state leaders should liberalize their medical marijuana proposal to bring it in line with the data from other states and what their constituents want.