House and Senate approve medical marijuana, await governor’s signature

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The Mississippi House of Representatives passed an amended medical marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday on a 104–14 vote, making changes aimed at addressing concerns raised by Gov. Tate Reeves. If the Senate approves the changes, and Reeves signs the bill, a system to regulate and sell cannabis to registered patients could launch this year.

On last week, the Mississippi Senate voted 47-5 for the legislation more than a year after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure that was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. 

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, the bill’s sponsor and a member of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, said that he tried to retain the spirit of a 2020 voter-passed initiative while making provisions more conservative to garner broad support in both chambers. 

“There’s been a great deal of hours that have gone into this,” Blackwell said. “It’s probably not a perfect bill.” 

Rep. Lee Yancey, who chairs the House Drug Policy Committee, and who’s been working with Blackwell, said before the House floor vote that he never imagined he’d be in a position to legalize cannabis.

“When I got involved in this bill, I said, ‘How can we build a wall around this program so the people who get it are the people who need it the most, and only the people who need it the most?” he said. “This is not for everybody out on the street. This is not for a bunch of kids. This is for hurting people with debilitating conditions.”

Although the bill has passed some major hurdles, there’s still another battle looming. Gov. Tate Reeves has already threatened to veto the measure over its proposed purchase limits, which he says are too high. But lawmakers say they’re confident they’ll have the votes to override any veto and push the legislation through. Wednesday’s House vote came with a few amendments attached to the bill. The Drug Policy Committee would remove the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce from oversight of the industry, instead handing that role to the Department of Health. Additionally, cannabis cultivators and processors could also locate in commercial-zoned areas.

The bill still has the provisions negotiated by lawmakers in the second half of last year. It would allow patients with about two dozen specific medical conditions to qualify for medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation, with further conditions eligible to be added later by regulators. State-issued registration cards would cost $25, though some patients could qualify for a lower price. Qualifying conditions under the bill will 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. The House reduced the maximum monthly amount down from 3.5 grams to 3 grams. Reeves has gone on record saying he will only sign off on lower legal amounts. He cautioned that it would open the door to legalizing recreational use. Blackwell pushed back on those claims from the floor last week. 

“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. “This bill aims to bring a conservative approach to cannabis legislation.” 

Patients or caretakers would be forbidden from growing their own cannabis under the bill. 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. 

In November 2020, more than 766,000 Mississippians voted for Initiative 65. Activists gathered signatures for a petition that would get the initiative added to the November ballot. However, the signatures were compiled on an outdated outline of five state congressional districts. Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed a lawsuit days before the election, contending that the signature-gathering requirement is mathematically impossible with four congressional districts. She opposed Initiative 65 because it limits a city’s ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses. In May 2021, the Supreme Court voided Mississippians’ votes. 

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House and Senate approve medical marijuana, await governor’s signature

By Brad Franklin
January 24, 2022