The Mississippi Senate voted on Thursday to legalize medical marijuana, a move that comes more than a year after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure that was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.
If the long-awaited legislation, which now heads to the House for consideration, becomes law this session, a medical cannabis program could be up and running in the state by later this year.
Its route to passage, however, remains precarious. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has already threatened a veto over its proposed purchase limits, which he says are too high, and some other state officials remain wary. But supportive lawmakers have said they’re confident they’ll have the votes to override any veto and push the legislation through.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R), the bill’s chief sponsor, pushed back on claims from the governor and others that the measure would be so lax as to effectively legalize marijuana for recreational use. “I suggest that if you think that, maybe you should take the time and actually read the bill, because you’ll find that it is a medical bill,” he said on the floor Thursday.
Medical marijuana remains a contentious topic in Mississippi despite voters there decisively approving a broad legalization initiative in November 2020. The state Supreme Court overturned the measure on procedural grounds last May—simultaneously doing away with the state’s entire initiative process—and lawmakers have spent the last several months navigating what comes next.
The bill, SB 2095, draws heavily from provisions negotiated by lawmakers in the second half of last year, as legislative leaders prepared a bill for an anticipated special session that the governor never called. It would allow patients with about two dozen specific medical conditions to qualify for medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation, with further conditions able to be added later by regulators. State-issued registration cards would cost $25, though some patients could qualify for a lower price.
Legalization advocates say the 445-page bill represents a middle ground between the more permissive plan approved by nearly three-quarters of state voters in 2020 and a far narrower approach preferred by the governor and some lawmakers.
The bill needs a three-fifths supermajority support in both chambers to pass.
During Thursday’s floor session, Blackwell criticized what he described as the “paranoid, Reefer Madness, Chicken Little belief expressed by a few skeptics that if we pass a medical cannabis bill, the streets of Mississippi will be flooded by pot-smoking zombies.” He’s repeatedly said that the bill aims to bring a conservative approach to cannabis regulation.
Blackwell also brought hemp to the Senate floor to illustrate purchase limits. In addition to a joint, he displayed two bags — one containing the daily limit of 3.5 grams, and another containing a full ounce of hemp.
Senator Jeff Tate of Clark andLauderdale counties was one of several lawmakers to attempt to smell the product pic.twitter.com/iJ9KbJAEm8
— Kobee Vance (@kobeevance) January 13, 2022
Qualifying conditions under the bill include cancer, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis, Alzheimer’s, sickle-cell anemia, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, neuropathy, spinal cord disease or severe injury as well as chronic medical conditions or treatments that produce severe nausea, cachexia or wasting, seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms or chronic pain.
Registered patients would be subject to purchase limits that would restrict them to no more than one “medical cannabis equivalency unit” per day, which the bill defines as 3.5 grams of cannabis flower, 1 gram of concentrate or up to 100 milligrams of THC in infused products. While those limits are significantly lower than in most states where cannabis is legal for medical patients, Reeves has said the program should allow only half those amounts.
Patients or caretakers would be forbidden from growing their own cannabis under the proposal. Products from state-licensed companies, meanwhile, would be limited to 30 percent THC for cannabis flower and 60 percent for concentrates.
Smoking and vaping cannabis would remain illegal in public and in motor vehicles, and patients would still be prohibited from driving while under the influence.
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The legislation would task the Mississippi Department of Health to oversee the new industry, with help from the state Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture and Commerce. It would also establish a nine-member advisory committee to advise on issues such as patient access and industry safety.
Licensing of cannabis businesses other than dispensaries — including cultivators, processors, transporters, disposal entities, testing labs and research facilities — would begin 120 days after the bill’s passage, with the first licenses issued about a month after that. The dispensary licensing process would kick off 150 days after passage, with the first licenses coming a month later. That would mean the program could be up and running, at least in limited form, by the end of this year.
The bill as introduced would impose no numerical cap on licensed businesses.
Cities, counties and other localities could impose zoning and other restrictions. Businesses may also have to get approval from local authorities to operate.
In general, local governments could not ban medical cannabis businesses outright or “make their operation impracticable,” the bill says, although a separate provision would allow local governments to opt out of the program altogether within 90 days of the bill’s passage. In such cases, citizens could then petition to put the question to a vote.
Blackwell successfully fought to shoot down several proposed amendments to the legislation at a committee hearing on Wednesday. On Thursday, colleagues on the Senate floor brought several more.
Sen. Barbara Blackmon (D), who introduced two of the committee amendments that were rejected, raised them again on the Senate floor Thursday. One would allow outdoor cannabis cultivation, and the other would express the state’s intent to advance the interests of historically underserved communities, including those “adversely affected by poverty and inequality.” Senators voted down the first, and the second was ruled to be not germane to the cannabis bill.
Blackmon brought back the equity amendment in a different form later on during the floor session, this time focused specifically on cannabis licensing to ensure the amendment was germane. Black people represent more than 40 percent of the state’s population, Blackmon noted, but control only 18 percent of the state’s economy. “We can make certain that all of our people have opportunities,” she said. Senators voted down the amendment.
A third floor amendment, from Sen. Derrick Simmons (D), would have adjusted the state’s process for expunging cannabis-related convictions for activities that would be legal after the bill’s passage. Specifically, it would allow a person who obtains a medical medical marijuana card to petition a court to have their cannabis-related conviction expunged immediately, rather than after a five-year waiting period as the state’s current expungement process dictates.
Blackwell said he liked the idea but nevertheless urged a no vote. He suggested Simmons instead introduce the change in a standalone bill.
Lawmakers also defeated an amendment from Sen. Juan Barnett (D) that would have shortened the timeline for a popular vote in localities that choose to opt out of the medical marijuana program.
Sen. Angela Burks Hill (R) brought a floor amendment that would strike the entirety of the legislation and replace it with a more restrictive system that she described as “a true medicinal bill.” Among other limitations, it would ban the smoking of medical marijuana and set strict limits on dosages and potency.
Patients would be limited to small amounts of cannabis unless they had a terminal illness, and those under 18 would be limited to THC potency of less than 3 percent. Pharmacists at a specialty pharmacy, rather than a dispensary, would have to provide the drug. The amendment would also have given state universities what Hill called “first right of refusal” to manufacture marijuana, saying schools “are probably better equipped to get this thing up and running than anybody else.”
“I don’t feel like I will get this strike-all passed, but I felt compelled and convicted to offer an alternative to the body…that actually is a medical program,” Hill said, “not something that’s smoking and candies and brownies that’s passed off as medical.”
Blackwell said he was “overwhelmed” by the amendment and didn’t know how to respond to it. “If you want to kill the program, a medical cannabis program, I’d encourage you to vote for Sen. Hill’s amendment.”
Lawmakers shot down the amendment on a 6–40 vote.
The Senate did approve a minor amendment from Blackwell that the senator said fixed a drafting error.
For much of last year, it appeared lawmakers were set to pass a medical marijuana bill during a special legislative session, but the governor ultimately decided against calling the special session after reaching an impasse with lawmakers. Lawmakers who supported legalization said at the time that responsibility for the failure rested with Reeves.
“We have worked long hours on this,” Rep. Lee Yancey (R), who has been working with Blackwell on the House side, said in October. “We are ready to have a special session. We have the votes to pass this. An overwhelming number in the House and Senate are ready to pass this, and we have a majority of people in Mississippi who voted for us to pass this.
“If there is any further delay, that will be squarely on the shoulders of the governor, rather than the Legislature.”
Later that month, Reeves dodged questions from patient advocates about why he’d failed to call the special session.
In late December, with this year’s regular session approaching, he said on social media that he had “repeatedly told the members of the Legislature that I am willing to sign a bill that is truly medical marijuana,” but stressed that there should be “reasonable restrictions.”
“There is one remaining point in question that is VERY important: how much marijuana any one individual can get in any given day,” he wrote, doing back-of-the-envelope math to argue that the system would lead to “1.2 billion legal joints.”
While Reeves said he would consider rejecting the bill over possession limits, Sen. Brice Wiggins (R), chairman of the Judiciary Committee Division A, said it wouldn’t surprise him if the legislature were to override the governor if he chooses to veto the bill.
“I would hate for Governor Reeves to have any veto overridden because, like I said, I’ve worked with him on many different things,” Wiggins said late last month. “But the reality is is that Initiative 65 passed with close to 70 percent of the vote. And the legislature spent all summer working on this and have listened to the people.”
Blackwell tried to make a point to the governor about purchase limits last week, when he brought hemp to Reeves’s office to give an idea of the amounts allowed under the bill. “I took samples to show him what an ounce actually looks like—what 3.5 grams actually looks like,” the senator said.
In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Blackwell described the meeting as cordial but acknowledged there was little willingness to compromise on key issues. “I thought it went well. [The governor] was receptive, appreciative of the meeting. Hopefully we moved the bar a little bit closer to an agreement,” Blackwell said. “He was non-committal, so they’re going to think about what we said and get back with us.”
A poll released in June found that a majority of Mississippi voters support legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use, with 63 percent saying they want the legislature to pass a bill that mirrors the ballot measure that was nullified by the Supreme Court.
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