By Geoff Pender
Sen. Kevin Blackwell recited Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — “everybody must get stoned” — and passed out various sized hemp samples before the Senate on Thursday passed a long-debated Mississippi medical marijuana program.
The vote on Senate Bill 2095 was initially counted as 45-5, well beyond what would be considered a veto-proof majority, but subject to change as it was by use of morning roll call and senators could change their votes or check in through the end of the day.
The measure was held on a technical motion, but is expected to move to the House on Monday. Its passage is expected to be a heavier lift there, but Rep. Lee Yancey — who has worked with Blackwell for months on the legislation, said he’s confident it will pass, if not by a veto-proof two-thirds majority. On Thursday several House members, including Yancey, stood on the Senate floor or gallery during the debate.
“He’s just handed me the football,” Yancey said after he congratulated Blackwell.
Gov. Tate Reeves threatened a veto of an earlier version of the legislation, saying it allowed patients too much marijuana and would be a toehold for recreational use. The bill the Senate passed had been tweaked, lowering the amount from 4 ounces a month to 3.5 ounces, but that would still appear to be far more than Reeves wanted, and the daily dosage unit in the bill was left the same, 3.5 grams, which Reeves said would amount to 11 joints a day.
Blackwell, a Republican from Southaven, passed out a 1.5-gram hemp cigarette, a 3.5-gram packet of hemp, and a 1-ounce package. He noted that it was recently said on a radio program that an ounce was the size of a loaf of bread.
“I don’t know where they get their bread,” Blackwell said, as some lawmakers passed around the samples while others declined.
Blackwell gave a brief history lesson on how cannabis has been used as medicine for centuries and is now legal in 35 other states then spent the next two hours successfully fending off amendments to the bill. One, he said, was a killing amendment offered by Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune. It was a “strike all” that would have rewritten the entire bill to prohibit patients smoking marijuana, required pharmacists to distribute it and limited production to four place statewide.
Hill said she was trying to ensure the state had a conservative medical marijuana program that wouldn’t morph into recreational use as has happened in many other states.
“You don’t smoke medicine,” she said.
Other offered amendments included one from Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, to allow outdoor growing of medical marijuana “and let Mississippi farmers take advantage of this new cash crop.”
Blackwell countered that regulation of the product “from seed to sale” would be difficult and having lots of outdoor farms would open the program to the black market and organized crime, as has happened in other states.
“We are not Oklahoma, and this program is not going to be Oklahoma 2.0,” Blackwell said.
He assured senators that he and others have done much work over months to ensure the program would be medical, not recreational or expanding the black market, and well regulated.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann recently called it the most scrutinized legislation in recent history and said Thursday, “It’s been well vetted, including again here today on the Senate floor.” Hosemann said he has not talked with Reeves about the bill and does not know if he’s still considering a veto. Other House and Senate leaders said the same Thursday.
“I think he has been briefed on the bill,” Hosemann said.
Lawmakers are attempting to reenact a medical marijuana program after voters overwhelmingly passed one in 2020, only to have it shot down on a technicality by the state Supreme Court. But the Legislature in this conservative state has struggled for years with the issue, despite growing voter sentiment — and even a citizen-passed ballot initiative — that the state join most others in legalizing marijuana for medical use.
Advocates of medical marijuana, including many who pushed for passage of Initiative 65, watched the Senate vote from the gallery and were in a celebratory mood after.
Bethany Hill, president of We Are the 74 — a group named for the 74% of voters who chose Initiative 65 over another option in 2020 — said she’s confident the measure will pass the House and that Reeves will withhold his veto stamp.
Hill said she was pleased to see Blackwell hand out samples showing various weights and measures of hemp.
“The governor’s colorful description of cannabis has kind of scared people,” Hill said. “You can’t get 11 joints out of 3.5 grams … If he vetoes it at this point, that’s insane. I think he’s kind of backed off.”
Blackwell on Thursday told lawmakers that the state’s medical marijuana program, if passed into law, will require ongoing monitoring and likely future legislative tweaks but “It will be one of the better bills throughout the nation.”
At the end of his time presenting the legislation to the Senate, Blackwell said: “We talked about a lot of things up here today, but one thing we didn’t talk a lot about was the people that we are doing this for. There are a lot of sick folks out there that this is going to help, and there are a lot of people that have been waiting a long time.”
After the vote, Blackwell had to return to the mic to ask, “that the samples that I sent out please be returned to us.”