By Geoff Pender
House and Senate negotiators are expected to begin meeting next week to try to draft a medical marijuana compromise bill, and both sides say they believe the governor could call a special session in August for lawmakers to pass such a measure.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, who is leading the Senate’s efforts, on Wednesday repeated his expectation that an agreement can be reached soon, and that a special session could be called by mid-August.
Rep. Lee Yancey, who is drafting a House bill, said, “I don’t see why not, as long as we come to an agreement soon,” on an August session. Both Yancey and Blackwell said they’ve had informal discussions, but plan to start getting down to brass tacks next week.
The Senate Public Health Committee on Wednesday held its third – and likely final – hearing on medical marijuana as the Senate drafts a bill. The panel has heard from medical experts, cannabis business associations and officials from several other states with medical and-or recreational marijuana programs.
But it appears lawmakers still have many issues to come to terms on with a medical marijuana program. Some lawmakers in both the House and Senate continue to question issues such as how strict regulations should be, whether smoking of cannabis should be allowed, whether to allow outdoor growing or only indoor and whether to allow cities to “opt out” of allowing dispensaries or other cannabis businesses.
Mississippi lawmakers are trying to reach consensus on a medical marijuana program after the state Supreme Court shot down one overwhelmingly passed by voters last year with ballot Initiative 65. The state Supreme Court ruled in May that the medical marijuana initiative and the entire ballot initiative process is invalid.
Gov. Tate Reeves holds sole authority to call a special session of the Legislature. He has said he would do so only when he’s assured the House and Senate have at least a rough agreement on a medical marijuana measure. He said he doesn’t want taxpayers to foot the bill for a drawn out session if the two chambers can’t agree on particulars and quickly pass a bill.
“Our position is different from the Senate position, but there are similarities,” Yancey said. “… I think the House position is much closer to Initiative 65, that voters passed, than the Senate position.”
Blackwell said the Senate’s goal also is to honor the spirit of Initiative 65, but he said his starting point is the last measure the Senate passed last session that died in the House. Some Initiative 65 proponents decried that measure as too strict and feared it would not allow Mississippi entrepreneurs to get into the business because of relatively high licensing fees and regulations.
“We are focused on the business end of this being a free-market approach,” Yancey said. “We don’t want to limit the number of licenses or anything like that. I believe we would probably have too many businesses in the first year, but the free market – supply and demand – would take care of that pretty quickly. As Jerry Clower used to say, everybody deserves a fighting chance.”
Yancey said his plan is to cleave as closely to Initiative 65 as possible, but he conceded that many House members share differing views on regulation, taxation and other issues and outside groups and lobbies are putting on pressure. He said his goal for the House position is to have doctors decide whether patients can smoke cannabis or use some other delivery, noting people with some conditions could not use edibles or other oral forms and might need to smoke it – but some lawmakers have called for not allowing smoking of cannabis.
“On one end of the spectrum you’ve got prohibition, and on the other Cheech and Chong, and they’re all throwing slings and arrows,” Yancey said. “People have got to remember, this is about alleviating the pain of suffering people. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Senate Public Health on Wednesday heard via online conference from a doctor in Colorado about issues that state has faced from both medical marijuana and recreational use, as 18 states now allow. They also heard from the director of Michigan’s marijuana regulatory agency and from representatives of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association and the Mississippi Minority Cannabis Association.
Cedric Anderson with the Mississippi Minority Cannabis Association told lawmakers that nationwide, people of color have not been able to adequately participate in business opportunities from legalized cannabis largely from “the shadow of discriminatory drug policies” and law enforcement of the past.
Anderson said MMCA’s goal is that any program the state stands up “reinvest in communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs,” and that they do not bring unintended consequences to these communities such as increased illicit drug trafficking as some states have seen caused by policies and prices in their legal programs.
“There are some of the best farmers in the U.S. in this state,” said Roderick Woullard, also with the MMCA. “Let’s find a way to get them to the table.”
During this summer’s Senate hearings, particularly in discussions with leaders from other states, adult-use recreational marijuana has frequently come up.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said he doesn’t advocate legalizing recreational use, but he says lawmakers should be transparent with Mississippians that a push for it is an inevitable next step from medical legalization.
Andrew Brisbo, director of the marijuana regulatory agency in Michigan, which has legal medical and recreational use, told Mississippi lawmakers, “It’s reasonable to assume it will morph into adult-use at some point. That’s inevitable.”
Before Wednesday’s hearing, a few cannabis advocates held a sparsely attended press conference to, among other things, advocate for legalized recreational marijuana use in Mississippi.