By Geoff Pender
The lead Senate and House negotiators working on a Mississippi medical marijuana program to replace the one shot down by the state Supreme Court say they’re close to having a draft that could prompt a special legislative session, as early as this month.
“I believe we have basically most of the major issues resolved,” said Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, who’s leading the Senate’s medical marijuana work. “… We’re very, very close.”
Rep. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, said, “I would be surprised if there were not a special session soon, but that’s not my call … I think at some point soon we will be ready to say to the governor that we have something we can work with.”
Mississippi lawmakers are trying to reach a 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 has sole authority to call lawmakers into a special session. He has said he would do so for a medical marijuana bill, but not before the House and Senate have general agreement on a proposal to avoid a long, drawn-out session.
Blackwell and Yancey had previously estimated a session could be called by mid-August. They said that might be pushed back, but that having one before the end of the month is still doable.
Neither Blackwell nor Yancey would provide specifics of agreements they’ve reached on taxation, licensing and other particulars of a program.
“I think we owe it to other legislators to let them have a chance to view and vet what we have worked on to this point,” Yancey said. “Each of us will have to get consensus to get 3/5 passage in both houses. We are cognizant of how important this is, that there are those our there who need this medication, and we are trying to put together a program we can be proud of — and know that we will have to tweak it year to year — but trying to get it as good as we can on the first push.”
Blackwell said: “They don’t have a program right now, and I think we are going to give them a program that is better than the one from Initiative 65.”
Ken Newburger, director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said he’s been in contact with Blackwell and Yancey, and is likewise confident an agreement, and a special session, will happen soon. Newburger said he believes lawmakers have taken input from medical marijuana advocates, patients and business leaders.
“I think that’s been the most refreshing and surprising part of this whole legislative process, has been the willingness of the legislators in both chambers to reach out to people who have been advocating it, and patients who have been advocating it for years,” Newburger said.
Newburger said his association has four main points it wants lawmakers to retain from the defunct Initiative 65:
- To allow broad patient access to various forms — smokable, edibles, pills, etc. — of cannabis products with varying levels of THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana.
- For certification of patients to remain in the hands of doctors, not “some bureaucratic system.”
- For cultivation and dispensing of cannabis to be a “free market enterprise” that allows broad participation and doesn’t limit businesses with exorbitant fees and license costs.
- That the program be self-funded, that fees collected for the program fund it.
Newburger said he is optimistic lawmakers will work to enshrine these tenets of Initiative 65 into a new law.
Yancey said he believes the House will work to hew as closely to the voter-passed initiative as possible.