Mississippi was supposed to join dozens of other states with medical marijuana programs. People looking to grow and dispense marijuana for medical purposes were making plans, some spending millions on land and buildings. Those eligible under the list of 22 debilitating conditions were counting on it come August.
On Friday, the Mississippi Supreme Court flipped that reality upside down.
Its decision to overrule a voter-approved medical marijuana initiative has sparked outrage from several organizations. Some have started petitions, one coalition called for a boycott of the city of Madison — its mayor filed the lawsuit that was before the court — and another is planning a rally for June.
“The Supreme Court’s decision effectively told the people of Mississippi:’You have no voice, no vehicle for voter initiative, y’all’s power is over,'” said Diesoul Blankenship, with Mississippians for Medical Marijuana and co-owner of Magnolia. “It’s nothing short of erroneous and illegal.”
MS said ‘yes’ to medical marijuana in Nov:Here’s what the voter-approved initiative meant
Initiative 65 — amending the constitution and legalizing medical marijuana — was overwhelmingly passed by voters in November.
The program came to a standstill when six justices ruled Friday that because the state’s initiative process is dated, the medical marijuana initiative is null. Added to the Mississippi Constitution in the 1990s as Section 273, the initiative process necessitates petitioners to get one-fifth of signatures from each congressional district to get an initiative on the ballot.
Mississippi had five congressional districts when the section was penned, but the state’s population whittled its districts down to four after the 2000 Census. The initiative process was not subsequently updated after the number of congressional districts changed.
Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed a lawsuit before the election, saying the signature-gathering requirement is mathematically impossible with four congressional districts, according to reporting by The Associated Press. She was opposed to Initiative 65, as written, limiting a city’s control on where medical marijuana businesses are located, the report continued.
Butler did not return a call to the Clarion Ledger on Monday.
“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress,” The Associated Press wrote in its report noting the majority ruling written by Justice Josiah Coleman on Monday.
Now, the ballot-initiative process will need amending, Coleman wrote, adding it’s something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.
“If they’re gonna derail BI (bill-initiative) 65, they need to derail all the initiatives before it,” David Singletary, former gubernatorial candidate and Mississippi Cannabis Coalition CEO, said Monday morning.
The future of ballot initiatives in Mississippi
Mississippi’s medical marijuana program was supposed to be a business as well as a way to alleviate chronic pain for Singletary.
Now, Singletary, who runs a CBD and hemp store off Highway 49 in Florence, said his plans to expand into the medical marijuana business are on hold. He’s one of a handful of people who were preparing to cultivate, extract and dispense marijuana for medical purposes.
“It’s a systematic failure in leadership at the state level year after year,” Singletary said of the outdated initiative process. “I’m tired of seeing of my state and the citizens suffer for no reason but from a leadership that doesn’t care.”
Even for those who weren’t looking to enter into the industry, medical marijuana advocates in Mississippi said, they still felt the decision’s weight.
The court “overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” Ken Newburger, Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association executive director, said in a Friday news release.
“Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end,” Newburger said. “The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right.”
The high court’s decision isn’t really about a technicality, Blankenship said, noting the change in number of congressional districts happened over 20 years ago. In essence, he says the legislature was aware of the language and if it wanted to change when it applied to earlier initiatives, it would’ve.
He used the example of using Initiative 27 to create voter ID laws.
“Nobody threw it out,” Blankenship said. “Every time something passed they liked, they never arose the question of the technicality.”
When Ocean Springs Mayor Shea Dobson got the news, he was in a medical marijuana-related meeting trying to help a business get its venture off the ground. Since 2018, he’d been lobbying in support for the program and was part of Mississippians for Compassionate Care, which vehemently backs Initiative 65.
The work had been an uphill battle from the very beginning, Dobson remembers. The Friday decision made him furious.
“The state government fought us every step of the way, yet we kept our head down and did the right thing,” Dobson said. “The Supreme Court has done the wrong thing. They’re punishing the people of the state for doing what we were told to by our government.”
MS leaders say no to medical marijuana:Voters said ‘yes’ to legalizing it anyway
Singletary and Blankenship said they hope Gov. Tate Reeves will call a special session to pass an identical version of Initiative 65 as a way to fulfill the wishes of the 74% of Mississippians who voted in favor of it last fall.
In November, the citizen-led initiative won by a margin greater than any other state passing an initiative on a medical marijuana program, Blankenship said, adding it’s clear residents want it.
On Monday, Reeves’ office said he was “interested and intrigued” in the Supreme Court’s ruling and will comment further once he’s read the court’s 58-page decision.
Still looming is Initiative 77, looking to decriminalize and legalize marijuana and cannabis in the state. And just as contentious, Initiative 76 that aims to expand Medicaid may be under the same technical vice-grip by the outdated initiative process.
“It’s a sad day when the people can’t even trust that their vote matters,” Dobson said.
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