By Geoff Pender
After years of wrangling, House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday said they’ve reached an agreement on a Mississippi medical marijuana bill and plan to pass it on to the governor on Wednesday.
Negotiators on Tuesday made a final tweak on where marijuana growing operations would be allowed to appease the state municipalities lobby.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, author of Senate Bill 2095, the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act, said the Senate leadership has agreed to changes the House made to the bill last week, including lowering the amount of marijuana a patient can have from 3.5 ounces a month to 3 ounces. He and Rep. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, the lead House negotiator, held a press conference Tuesday to announce a final agreement.
“This has been a long journey,” Yancey said. “It looks like we will finally be able to provide relief for the chronically ill patients who suffer so badly and need this alternative. I congratulate Sen. Blackwell — he’s carried this bill most of the way by himself.”
The effort for Mississippi to join a majority of other states that have legalized medical — if not recreational — marijuana has been long and contentious. For years, legislative efforts in this conservative Bible Belt state fizzled, despite growing support among the citizenry.
In 2020, voters took matters in hand and passed Initiative 65, creating a medical marijuana program and enshrining it in the state constitution. But the Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality shot down the initiative last spring, and even the process by which voters could pass initiatives.
Promising to heed the will of the voters, lawmakers worked over the summer to draft a medical marijuana bill. Gov. Tate Reeves, who opposed Initiative 65, vowed also to heed the will of voters and call lawmakers into special session once they reached an agreement on a measure. They did so in September, but Reeves didn’t like the agreement and refused to call a special session. He said the 4 ounces a month of marijuana it allowed patients to buy was too much, despite it being less than the 5 ounces voters approved with Initiative 65.
The bill the Senate initially passed this month allowed 3.5 ounces a month for patients and made other concessions Reeves had wanted. The House amended the bill last week, lowering the amount to 3 ounces a month. Both chambers passed their versions with an overwhelming vote, that if it holds would be “veto-proof.”
The original bill said that marijuana growing operations would be allowed in areas zoned for agricultural and industrial business. The House added commercial zoning to the bill. The Mississippi Municipal League objected to this, Blackwell and Yancey said, so on Tuesday the bill was changed to say growing would be allowed in commercial zones only if the local government approves it.
The measure allows local government boards to opt-out of having medical marijuana businesses in their cities or counties, but voters can override this with a referendum.
Reeves has not said whether he agrees with the changes. If it is passed on to him he could sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature — a symbolic move governors sometimes do to show they disagree with a measure but will not block it.
Ken Newburger, director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana association was among several advocates at the Capitol on Tuesday. He said that while the overall process has been long, lawmakers have “moved with lightning speed” this session to get a measure passed.
“I think the governor is going to sign it,” Newburger said. He said chronically ill patients are looking forward to “better quality of life” and having an alternative to opioids and other pharmaceuticals, and the new industry in Mississippi will begin creating jobs.
DeAundrea Delaney, president of the Mississippi chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said her group and others will soon begin education and job fairs
Both Blackwell and Yancey said they have not had any communication with or from the governor on the bill recently. But both said the bill has safeguards to ensure Mississippi’s program does not become a de facto recreational program, expand the black market or become infiltrated by organized crime.
Mississippi’s proposed program has a list of specific, chronic medical conditions for which a patient can be certified to use marijuana. It allows only indoor growing by licensed growers and creates a “seed to sale” monitoring system. Blackwell said he studied other states’ experiences with medical marijuana programs, and crafted his bill to avoid problems. In hearings Blackwell held this summer, lawmakers heard from officials in Oklahoma, which has had problems and where a medical marijuana program has become a de facto recreational one.
“We will not be Oklahoma 2.0,” Blackwell has said. “We have qualifying conditions and you have to have a bona fide relationship with a medical practitioner. There, you can bump your funny bone and get it.”