A1 A1
Mississippi Supreme Court strikes down medical marijuana ballot initiative

TUPELO • In a ruling that will cast a long shadow on state politics, the Mississippi Supreme Court has invalidated a popular medical marijuana proposal as well as the ability of voters to directly amend the state constitution.

In a 6-3 decision released Friday afternoon, the court majority found that the Initiative 65 medical cannabis referendum was improperly placed on the 2020 ballot. The court said that the Constitutional provisions for a voter referendum require that signatures be gathered equally from five congressional districts. The state only has four.

The state constitution contains “a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress,” Justice Josiah Coleman wrote for the majority. “To work in today’s reality, it will need amending — something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

Joining Coleman in the majority were Justices Michael Randolph, Leslie King, Dawn Beam, David Ishee and Kenneth Griffis.

Dissenting from the majority view were Justices Robert Chamberlin, James Kitchens and James Maxwell.

In a dissenting opinion, Chamberlin wrote that the majority ruling “does not avoid absurdity, rather, it invites it.”

Friday's ruling came after Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler challenged the validity of Initiative 65's certification for the ballot, filing suit just days before voters approved a medical marijuana program.

Mississippi now has no legal provision for medial marijuana. The program widely approved by voters required that legal medical pot be available no later than August.

In 2020, about 73% of voters supported Initiative 65 over an alternative program proposed by the Legislature. This, even as prominent political leaders rallied against Initiative 65.

As required by Initiative 65, the Mississippi State Department of Health has been writing the regulations and provisions needed to operate the program.

During a question and answer session streamed online Friday, State Health Office Dr. Thomas Dobbs said MSDH will "discontinue any further work on that project."

He added that "if the Legislature wants to do something in statute, we stand ready to assist with all we've learned."

Without a valid referendum process, current efforts to put early voting, Medicaid expansion and the old state flag on the ballot are now cut short.

Medical marijuana supporters dismayed

Advocates for medical marijuana decried the court's ruling.

"The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi," said Ken Newburger, executive director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association. "Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right. It’s a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn’t matter."

Dr. Matt Wesson, a Tupelo-based ophthalmologist, was a strong supporter of Initiative 65. He told the Daily Journal on Friday that he was "very disappointed" in the Court's ruling because it "goes against the will of the voters."

A politically broad coalition had supporter Initiative 65, including libertarian conservatives, some more business-oriented Republicans and most of the state's Democratic voters.

On Friday, for example, the Republican mayor of Ocean Springs criticized the state's high court for its ruling.

"What happens in Jackson is that apparently they don't care what our voices are and they are going to do whatever it is that they want to do," Mayor Shea Dobbs said.

Legislature could take action

The Mississippi Legislature failed in this year's session to write a statutory program that could take effect if the court struck down Initiative 65. The state Senate approved such legislation and repeatedly tried to revive the effort. The House declined to take up any such legislation and approve it.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said in a statement to the Daily Journal that he anticipates reviving medical marijuana legislation again in the 2022 session.

"The Senate passed backstop legislation which we anticipate revisiting in January," Hosemann said.

Lawmakers can't take up any medical pot legislation until next year's session — unless Gov. Tate Reeves calls a special session this year to consider the matter. The governor's office declined to answer questions from the Daily Journal about whether Reeves might call a special session.

Instead, a spokesperson for Reeves provided the following statement:

"Like most Mississippians, Governor Reeves is interested and intrigued by the Supreme Court’s decision on the recent ballot initiative. He and his team are currently digesting the Court’s 58 page Opinion and will make further comment once that analysis is complete."

A spokesperson for Secretary of State Michael Watson said the agency is still reviewing the high court’s ruling.

Congressional districts at heart of court ruling

Mississippi's constitutional provision for a voter-initiated referendum were written at a time when the state had five congressional districts — and the state Supreme Court decided the Constitution as written only allows for a valid referendum when there are five congressional districts.

The state has had only four congressional districts for 20 years, and the most recent round of congressional apportionment will leave the state with four districts for at least the next decade.

Under a 1992 constitutional amendment, Mississippi voters can force a referendum onto the ballot by gathering signatures equal to 12% of the total number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. However, the constitution also requires that no more than 20% of the signatures can come from any single congressional district. That requires five districts in order to reach the total signatures needed.

Since the state lost a congressional district, referendum organizers have gathered signatures from the former five congressional districts, a strategy the state attorney general's office had deemed sufficient to must constitutional muster.

The state Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the Constitution requires signatures be collected from the actual congressional districts currently in use at any given time.

The court minority disagreed, and thought that use of the old five districts was legitimate, while also arguing that the clear intent of the constitution is to allow voter-initiated referendums.

Booneville's Asya Branch takes Miss Universe stage Sunday night

TUPELO • Asya Branch's historic run in pageantry takes its biggest step Sunday night.

The Booneville resident will be on the global stage representing the United States in the 69th annual Miss Universe competition. Branch, who crowned Miss USA 2020 last year, is one of 74 contestants vying for the Universe title.

"It feels like a dream and I'm just not ever waking up," Branch recently said. "I don't think it's completely been able to sink in. I'm just still over the moon and so excited. I haven't wrapped my mind around it fully, but it is amazing. It truly is a dream come true."

Branch has been involved in preliminary competition this week leading up to the crowning at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The finals will be televised live by the FYI network and streamed on Roku, starting at 7 p.m.

Branch's run began in October 2019 when she became the first Black Miss Mississippi USA, earning her a spot in the Miss USA pageant.

The Miss USA 2020 competition was postponed until November because of the pandemic. When Miss USA finally took place in Memphis, Branch became the first contestant representing Mississippi to win.

Before entering the Miss USA pageant system, Branch was Miss Mississippi 2018 and competed in the Miss America pageant. She wants to be the ninth Miss USA and the first Mississippian to win Miss Universe.

Branch, whose father was incarcerated for much of her life, plans to continue working toward prison reform as part of her platform.

"If I'm crowned Miss Universe, I will continue to accomplish the things I had on my agenda as Miss USA and then some," she said. "I want to continue to advocate for women, for equality, and for our justice systems internationally. I hope to be able to leave a lasting impact and really emphasize on unity."

Lisa Hawkins receives Red Rasberry Award for volunteer and business leadership

TUPELO • Lisa Hawkins grew up admiring the leaders who made Northeast Mississippi better.

When she was named this year’s Red Rasberry Humanitarian Award recipient by the Regional Rehabilitation Center (RRC), placing her squarely in the company of those she holds in high regard, she was “very humbled” by the recognition.

“The other recipients have been such outstanding people, and I was quite shocked about being honored in this way,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins, who owns Room to Room in Tupelo and works with various community nonprofits throughout the area, will be recognized for her philanthropy during an award dinner this Tuesday, May 18, at the Tupelo Furniture Market, Building 4. A meet-and-greet will begin at 6 p.m., with dinner to follow at 7 p.m. A virtual watch party on Facebook and YouTube will start at 7 p.m.

The award, named after the late John “Red” Rasberry, will honor Hawkins for her commitment to the community. Hawkins currently serves on the Sanctuary Hospice and CREATE Foundation boards, was a previous chairman of the Community Development Foundation, and is an ardent support of the United Way of Northeast Mississippi and nonprofits like the Regional Rehab Center and Eight Days of Hope.

'Here to help whomever'

The Tupelo native grew up watching RRC’s early start. Nita Butler, along with her husband Bob and others, founded RRC in 1955 after finding a need for services for her own brother with cerebral palsy. Since its inception, RRC has grown to provide physical, occupational and speech therapy, early intervention and dyslexia services free of charge to families throughout the region.

“It was a sister’s love for her brother that really started the efforts for Regional Rehab,” Hawkins said. “One person can make a difference in the community if they’re highly motivated and they join together with other friends.”

Hawkins said the people of Tupelo, and Northeast Mississippi as a whole, has always had a similar mindset.

“We call it the Tupelo Spirit, but I think it’s just people seeing a need and wanting to help their fellow man,” she said.

The Tupelo Spirit showed up in Hawkins’ own life several times. When her father was killed in a plane accident when she was 2, friends and neighbors stepped in to help. Family members like her brother and grandson, have been clients of RRC. Her public school teachers, as well as stints in high school working as a candy striper and in the hospital office inspired her to pursue nursing. United Way helped fund a scholarship that allowed her to attend nursing school at Mississippi University for Women.

Although she is now an entrepreneur, Hawkins believes her calling is in nursing. After closing the Velveteen Rabbit, her clothing store of 12 years, her volunteering increased to the point where it “became almost a full-time job,” Hawkins said.

As one of the founding members of Sanctuary Hospice, Hawkins saw a different kind of care, one that focused on comfort and “compassion for those that are suffering.” She remains on the Sanctuary Hospice board, works significantly with United Way of Northeast Mississippi and is involved with faith-based activities such as Eight Days of Hope.

She previously served as The Community Development Foundation chairman, the hospital board, and now serves as CREATE Foundation board board vice chairman. She also sits on a board for affordable housing.

Through her positions on various nonprofit boards of directors, she’s been blessed to serve and be inspired by leaders such as Grace Clark, Aubrey Patterson, Mickey Holliman, Jack Reed, Hassell Franklin and Lewis Whitfield ... some of the very people she grew up admiring.

“They were all these iconic people in our community that I could be serving on a board with, and I felt very unworthy," she said. "But having the opportunity to watch them and learn from them was an incredible gift.

“I felt like it was me and the Godfathers,” she joked, “but I’m very thankful that I had, and still have, that opportunity.”

In her roles with nonprofits, Hawkins has always focused on the grassroots efforts, aligning herself with organizations that focus on basic needs and helping the community move ahead. To Hawkins, it’s important to have any type of impact, whether it’s kind words, a little assistance or referral to help someone meet their needs. After a young man recently told her how she helped change his life, she’s learned to not take it for granted the impact a person can have.

“You just never know what a kind word, encouragement, just a minute of your day can really mean to somebody,” Hawkins said.

With her focus on medical care, the pandemic showed her that helping and caring for people doesn’t stop. She started focusing on volunteering more on an individual basis, such as helping those who were sick, and filling needs.

Attending the 2021 Ignite Conference, where she heard from leadership expert and psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud, helped her recognize the importance of remaining healthy mentally and acknowledge the toll the pandemic collectively had on relationships.

“It’s been a very tough time on human beings. It hasn’t just been COVID; it’s been more than that, because it’s relationships,” Hawkins said. “I’m looking forward to days when we can all interact and see friends, hug.”

The past year also brought a lot of loss: Her mother passed, as did close friends and neighbors Jean and John Bartlett. Prior to her mother's passing, Hawkins cared for her, and was planning her mother’s funeral when she received the news RRC wanted to honor her as this year’s Red Rasberry recipient.

“I was really overwhelmed and really didn’t feel worthy of that award, especially knowing Mr. (John “Red”) Raspberry and the kind of guy he was,” Hawkins said. “But if my life can be an encouragement to somebody else, I hope that I can do that. I’m here to help whomever.”

She accepted the honor because admires RRC’s ability to give skills that help prepare for other opportunities and overcome obstacles. She feels “very blessed” and thankful to have the opportunity to help others.

“Anything I can do to keep the services going at Regional Rehab, that’s my focus,” Hawkins said. “I hope that people will reach out and help Regional Rehab, and the many other nonprofits in our community, because that’s what we (do), helping our neighbors.”