As states legalize recreational cannabis use, nationwide access seems just around the corner. Even in conservative states, reactionary cannabis policies are losing support. But in Mississippi, one of the few states without a medical cannabis program, broad support of medicinal cannabis is not enough to sway the government’s anti-cannabis holdouts.
When the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down Initiative 65 in May, the justices vetoed the will of the people. The initiative to legalize medical cannabis was spearheaded by the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign, a non-partisan coalition that sees the economic and therapeutic benefits of a medical program as a win-win for the state of Mississippi. Conner Reeves, a Jackson native who served as the medical policy advisor for the campaign, says the support for the program among Mississippians is indisputable. “The ballot measure passed by 74%, in all 82 counties. We have a lot of patients who are waiting to have this happen, and constituents have already approved it. It should not be that complicated.”
But if the matter seemed simple enough when Initiative 65 went on the ballot, the convoluted means used to defeat the measure has led to complications for more than just medical cannabis. Because the ballot measure had such wide approval among voters, its opponents had to resort to legal technicalities to overturn it. In the Mississippi state constitution it says that ballot measures must be approved with no more than 20% of the votes coming from any of the state’s five congressional districts. However, Mississippi lost a congressional seat after the 2000 census, meaning it now has a total of four districts instead of five. The legislature never adjusted the language of the constitution to reflect the change, and so it now would be mathematically impossible for a ballot measure to reach the constitutionally mandated percentage of statewide support.
Many measures have passed since Mississippi lost a congressional seat, and it wasn’t until Initiative 65 that the Supreme Court used the technicality as reasoning to void ballot measures entirely. As the deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project said in a statement, “This decision not only nullifies the will of hundreds of thousands of voters, it also effectively eliminates Mississippians’ right to bring forward ballot initiatives to amend their state’s constitution.”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice James Maxwell said that the majority is acting outside their legal mandate, “stepping completely outside of Mississippi law… to employ an interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi’s citizen initiative process.” His concerns for Mississippi’s democracy are echoed in the other dissenting opinion by Justice Robert Chamberlain, who says the ruling “does not avoid absurdity, rather, it invites it.” Not only has the ruling stalled the process of legalizing medical cannabis, but it has left six other ballot initiatives hanging in the balance. To Reeves, this decision indicates a pervasive resistance to change in Mississippi’s political culture. “I think there’s a disconnect between certain elected officials and what their constituents want,” he says, “whether it be because they listen to lobbyists, outside interests, or their own interests, they need to be reminded who they work for.”
While governmental opposition to medical cannabis may seem like a conservative reaction, in the eyes of many Mississipians it’s actually a violation of politically conservative values. According to many Mississipi Republicans, when political opponents to the medical cannabis program attempt to control the medical future of their constituents, they align themselves with “liberal” government interventionists that so often provoke their ire. In the build up to Initiative 65, numerous Mississippi Republican party leaders registered their support for medical cannabis, saying “As supporters of less intrusive government, we believe doctors and their patients should have the freedom to choose medical marijuana.”
The Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association echoes this sentiment in their free market approach to designing a program. Unlike neighboring Louisiana, where the state tightly controls the market by selecting specific growers and distributors, proponents of medical cannabis in Mississippi are adamant about minimizing government involvement. Initiative 65 proposed a program based on what Reeves describe as the four pillars: decision rights for certifying healthcare providers that would minimize “unnecessary red tape,” a sustainable revenue model without overregulation, broad access for patients (with no cap on THC or delivery method restrictions), and a free market ethos that would keep licensing fees low and prevent licencing caps to ensure competition.
Reeves says that with this model anyone in compliance with the program can participate in the medical cannabis space. “If you want to do it all you can,” he says. “Let the market dictate who gets to participate rather than government intrusion picking winners. That doesn’t benefit anyone except those who get the licences. This is what Mississppians believe in.”
The vision for a hands-off medical cannabis market is a natural fit with purported conervative values; in the words of Republicans for Initiative 65, “as conservatives we value individual responsibility, limited government, low taxes, personal freedom and privacy” and the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association designed Initiative 65 to reflect that.
But the proposed program has also benefited from being late to the game; seeing the process unfold elsewhere has allowed them to avoid the pitfalls of other state programs. “We can look at who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong, what’s worked and what hasn’t,” says Reeves. “People I consult from other states are saying if we had what you guys are proposing our program would be even better.” In states where medical programs were heavily regulated from the start, peeling back restrictions can be difficult. But with the chance to start fresh, cannabis in Mississippi is poised to have some of the fewest government restrictions nationwide.
According to Reeves, the business-friendly emerging medical market has a lot to offer operators. “This market has tremendous opportunity. In Mississippi we have affordable real estate options…The cost of living and start up costs are extremely low compared to other states. And with our recommendation for the program not to require Mississippi residency for patients, we’ve got a lot of patients in surrounding states that could double the market,” he says. As a Mississippi native, Reeves is excited about what the market could do for stagnant local economies as well. “A lot of clients that are already breaking ground on 10,000 square foot grow facilities are bringing real dollars to these communities, renovating buildings that havent been used in ten years,” he says.
Of course, for all this to happen the bill still has to pass. Now it’s up to lawmakers to finish the work their constituents started and draft the necessary legislation. Regardless of the state government’s efforts to control the process, Reeves remains optimistic, thanks in part to the outpouring of support he saw during the campaign. Considering the measure’s popularity, Reeves thinks lawmakers won’t be far behind the ballot measure. “People came out of the woodwork in Mississippi to be a part of this team and have their voice heard,” he says. “I think the legislature is on board– many of their constituents are outspoken that they want a program, and they are listening and reacting to that.” Change may come slow in Mississippi, but according to the will of the people it’s just around the bend.