By Alyssa Schnugg
While Mississippians will be casting their vote for president of the United States in November and possibly a new state flag, they are also being asked to decide whether Mississippi should join the more than 30 other states in the nation that offer medical marijuana.
The question on the ballot could be confusing to some voters since it is in a two-part question.
Last year, the Medical Marijuana 2020 initiative garnered more than 200,000 signatures to have the measure put onto the November Ballot as Initiative No. 65. Then earlier this year, the Legislature added a competing measure, Alternative 65A, which lacks specific guidelines and would only be allowed for “terminally ill” patients.
Initiative 65 and Alternative 65A would both amend the Mississippi Constitution to provide for the establishment of a medical marijuana program in Mississippi.
Under Initiative 65, medical marijuana could be recommended for patients with at least one of 22 specified qualifying conditions including cancer, epilepsy or seizures, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV and more. Patients could possess up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana at one time. Marijuana sales under Initiative 65 would be taxed at the state’s sales tax rate, which is 7% as of 2020.
Alternative 65A does not specify qualifying conditions, possession limits or a tax rate. Many details would need to be set by the state legislature. Alternative 65A would restrict the ability to smoke marijuana to terminally ill patients.
Voters will first be asked to vote whether or not they support either initiative and then to select whether they support 65 or 65A.
Marilyn Tinnin, community outreach liaison for Medical Marijuana 2020, which supports the original Initiative 65, said 65A is a vague measure that offers no timeline, no list of qualifying medical conditions, no program start date and no accountability.
Supporters of Initiative 65 have accused the Legislature of putting 65A on the ballot in hopes of confusing voters.
“For decades the Mississippi Legislature has had the ability to act on this issue, and they have refused to even bring it to the floor for a vote and instead blocked every proposed bill,” Tinnin said. “Then, as soon as citizens placed Initiative 65 on the ballot, the Legislature placed a competing backdoor kill measure on the ballot to confuse voters and deny them a fair up or down vote in order to split the vote so that neither measure passes.”
If the vote is split on the second question between the two measures – even if the majority of voters support a medical marijuana program in the first question – Initiative 65 will be defeated, and Tinnin said there is no guarantee there will ever be a medical marijuana program in Mississippi.
The FDA has not approved the cannabis plant for any medical use. However, it has approved several drugs that contain individual cannabinoids – the chemicals in the plant commonly known as THC and CBD.
In an online poll created by Hottytoddy.com earlier this week, 39 people voted in favor or medical marijuana, while five people voted against it.
A 2019 poll from Millsaps College and Chism Strategies showed that 67% of Mississippians supported a 2020 ballot initiative to allow for the use of medical marijuana for patients with debilitating medical conditions.
Earlier this week, former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant spoke out against medical marijuana.
“Initiative 65 inserts marijuana permanently in our State Constitution,” he said. “The Constitution rarely changes and is beyond the reach of the governor and legislature to regulate. In other words, it will take another statewide referendum to fix any oversights in Initiative 65. And there are plenty of problems.”
According to Tinnin, medical marijuana has been proven to be a safe and effective treatment option for a broad range of conditions without the danger of dependence as is found with opioids.
“It helps patients cope with chronic pain, suppresses nausea caused by chemotherapy and reduces seizures and tremors,” she said. “It is an effective antidote for PTSD, anxiety from dementia, pain from auto-immune diseases like MS and ALS and has been proven to greatly reduce seizures in patients with epilepsy. Multiple studies report its success in treating a wide range of chronic pain symptoms while allowing its users to experience a more normal quality of life amid an often-incurable diagnosis.”
However, some doctors and organizations specializing in addiction claim medical marijuana can lead to addiction issues and depression.
According to a study published online in the “Journal of Affective Disorders,” while regular use of marijuana may temporarily relieve depression or anxiety, long-term use may make symptoms worse.
Recent data suggest that 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder,” according to Drugabuse.org. “People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.”
On the flip side, other studies have shown that using medical marijuana can reduce the number of people addicted to opioid pain relievers and in some cases, drug-related crimes.
Hottytoddy.com reached out to Oxford and Lafayette County law enforcement agencies for comment and were told they were working on a “joint statement” that will be released later this month.
A different study from the Journal of Drug Issues disagrees.
“There is no evidence of negative spillover effects from medical marijuana laws on violent or property crime,” it states. “Instead, we find significant drops in rates of violent crime associated with state medical marijuana laws. Additionally, research shows that in states with regulated medical marijuana programs, opioid prescribing goes down as well. Medical marijuana is helping patients in 34 other states across the country to successfully overcome debilitating symptoms and improve their quality of life.”
If Initiative 65 passes, Tinnin says that Mississippi will join 34 other states that have medical marijuana programs through which more than 3.5 million patients are successfully finding relief from cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and other debilitating medical conditions.
“A conservative, clearly defined, self-funded program will be set up right away – as soon as voters approve it. Mississippians who are suffering deserve to have the same access as patients in 34 other states,” she said.