State Legislature Undermines Mississippi’s Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative
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Commentary

State Legislature Undermines Mississippi’s Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative

The legislature’s proposal would severely restrict the number of legal medical marijuana suppliers and manufacturers.

Mississippi was on its way to passing a medical marijuana ballot initiative that gathered well over 200,000 signatures, but now the legislature has passed a competing measure that seeks to undermine the voter initiative.  

Once an initiative qualifies for the ballot in Mississippi, the state legislature is permitted to float competing measures.  Unfortunately for the prospective patients of Mississippi, the state legislature’s alternative for medical marijuana is far more restrictive and vague than the initiative voters signed and even contains provisions that have been legally overturned in other states. 

The original ballot initiative, which is similar to other measures around the country, requires patients to suffer from a “debilitating condition” before they qualify to purchase medical marijuana. These conditions are specifically enumerated and include chronic pain, glaucoma, pain refractory to appropriate opioid management, and intractable nausea. Enumerating these conditions is important because if they are not explicitly stated, it allows state lawmakers and rule-makers to arbitrarily determine which conditions qualify.

The competing legislative measure leaves this determination open to state regulators who may select a totally different set of conditions than what was intended by voters.    

Another overly restrictive aspect of the legislature’s measure is that it prohibits smoking marijuana, perhaps the most common method of consumption, for anyone except those with “terminal medical conditions.” 

While the legal and constitutional context was notably different, Florida’s legislature also attempted to implement a ban on smoking when medical marijuana was passed there. The provision was immediately challenged in court and was quickly tossed out by Florida’s Supreme Court as conflicting with the will of the voters. Another argument against the ban was that if the legislature could ban one form of consumption, namely the most popular one, it gives the legislature the power to ban any other form of consumption, which in turn undermines the main intent of allowing citizens to use medical marijuana in a manner agreed upon by the patient and the doctor. 

Worryingly, the Mississippi legislature’s proposal also severely restricts the number of legal marijuana suppliers and manufacturers.

States that are legalizing medical cannabis are sometimes concerned about black market “leakage” to neighboring states or to recreational use, and for this reason, they believe that limiting the supply of legal marijuana will prevent leakage. However, this concern may be overblown, as the illegal marijuana supply chains were vibrant long before any states created medical marijuana programs. Also, legal medical marijuana inventory is tracked extensively by state databases, while those planning to sell illegal marijuana would seek to avoid this tracking system entirely.

Marijuana legalization in a healthy market will eventually reduce prices and squeeze out black market providers, whereas adding restrictions to the legal market only raises costs of production and makes illegal marijuana relatively more attractive, even for medical patients who must foot the bills for their own treatment. In addition, both of Mississippi’s neighbor states to the west already have medical marijuana and it’s two neighbors to the east both have promising active bills being considered by their respective legislatures.  

Placing artificial limits on the supply of legal medical marijuana could actually have the opposite effect and drive medical patients to the black market because limited patient access leads to high prices for legal products. It is practically impossible for states to estimate the exact size of medical marijuana demand since the data doesn’t exist and states that have tried have been wildly off-base. Further, statewide caps on the number of licenses available limits economic opportunity and increases the likelihood of cronyism.

Nevada, for example, has seen its legalization scheme devolve into outright fraud and corruption as regulators were wooed by applicants with unlawful payments in order to secure one of the limited licenses. Mississippi should look to actively avoid those mistakes by keeping its medical marijuana market open and honest.

Mississippi’s legislators should study and learn from the successes and failures of other states’ medical marijuana programs alike. They should try to avoid the fiasco seen in Florida, and instead adopt measures that reflect the will of people for an open, but well-regulated medical marijuana market.

The original ballot measure borrows heavily from successful initiatives in other states that have created healthy, but controlled, marijuana markets, with few to none of the fears around legalization coming to fruition.  

The Mississippi legislature should recognize and accept citizens’ desire to have safe, legal access to medical marijuana in a manner most consistent with a doctor’s advice.  And attempts to undermine this process risk damaging public health while leading directly to the very problems the legislature seems to fear.

Spence Purnell is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, where he works on pension reform, Florida policy issues and economic development.