Editor’s note: Between now and Election Day, the Daily Journal will rerun this article on the medical marijuana initiatives to help voters understand the options.
TUPELO • Mississippi voters will be asked on the November ballot if they want to legalize the use of medical marijuana in the state, but the proposal could confuse many voters with two competing medical marijuana initiatives that will be listed on the ballot alongside one another.
Despite polling that shows a large number of Mississippians are in favor of medical marijuana, division and skepticism has grown in the months leading up to the vote now that state lawmakers have placed their own alternative medical marijuana proposal on the ballot and since doctors, politicians and law enforcement officials all have different opinions on the two proposals.
Mississippi’s Nov. 3 election will feature three statewide ballot measures. Ballot Measure 1 will ask voters a two-part question about medical marijuana. The first question will ask voters if they wish to vote in favor of one of the medical marijuana initiatives or vote against both of the initiatives.
If a majority of Mississippians vote no on the first question, then no medical marijuana program will be enacted in the state. If a majority of Mississippians vote yes on the first question, then the proposal with the majority of the votes cast could become a part of the Constitution.
The second question will ask voters which specific initiative they wish to vote for. Mississippians can vote for either Initiative 65, which is a citizen-sponsored proposal, or they can vote for Initiative 65A, the alternative measure proposed by the Mississippi Legislature.
Both proposals seek to amend the state Constitution to make medical marijuana legal in the state, but the two proposals offer different regulations of how the program would operate.
The citizen-sponsored initiative
Leaders of Medical Marijuana 2020 used Mississippi’s convoluted initiative process to place Initiative 65 on the ballot, which required the leaders to gather over 100,000 signatures from qualified voters evenly spread out across the state, and the group ended up garnering over 220,000 signatures from voters.
The proposed ballot initiative would only allow someone to use medical marijuana if they have one of 22 “debilitating medical conditions” such as epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder or debilitating pain. Under the citizen initiative, doctors will have the option to certify that a patient can receive medical marijuana as a form of treatment for one of the conditions.
To be certified for medical marijuana use, a person must physically go to a licensed Mississippi physician, where the doctor may certify a patient as suffering from one of the conditions.
If a physician certifies that a patient can be treated with medical marijuana, the patient would be allowed to purchase a medical marijuana ID card from the Mississippi State Department of Health. This would allow them to purchase medical marijuana from a state-regulated treatment center.
“This is extremely well researched and extremely well written,” said Dr. Matthew Wesson, a Tupelo-based ophthalmologist, who serves on Medical Marijuana 2020’s steering committee.
Wesson first became a proponent of medical marijuana when he had a friend several years ago who suffered from cancer and used medical marijuana under the supervision of a physician as a way to treat his pain from the illness.
Some critics of the proposal believe that Initiative 65 is an extreme proposal that could lead to others partaking of the product for recreational purposes. Wesson rejects this idea and believes that only those who would be certified for marijuana use would be those in extreme pain.
“Once people are to the point where they need medical marijuana, they are extremely sick,” he said.
Under initiative 65, the state health department would regulate and administer the program, potential patients could receive no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana within a 14 day period, smoking medical marijuana in public would be prohibited and marijuana treatment centers cannot be located within 500 feet of a church, school or childcare center.
Marijuana use in some capacity is legal in over 30 states and the District of Columbia. Advocates of initiative say that they took various medical marijuana programs from around the state and melded them together as a template for Initiative 65.
The legislative alternative
Even though some people in the state are open to adopting a medical marijuana program, state leaders have opposed the citizen amendment citing concerns that a product does not belong in the Constitution.
State Sen. Nicole Boyd, a Republican lawmaker from Oxford, said that she is a child of someone who had cancer and she understands people who want medical treatment for pain. But she believes that Initiative 65 is “too radical” and the wrong way to adopt a program.
“This is bad public policy to put something of this nature into the Constitution,” Boyd said adding that she views the initiative as one of the most radical proposals in the state.
Shortly after election officials certified that Initiative 65 would appear on the ballot, the Mississippi Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 39, which put an alternative initiative on the ballot to appear alongside the citizen-sponsored measure.
Under the state’s initiative process, the Mississippi Legislature is allowed to place an alternative measure on the ballot beside a citizen-sponsored initiative on an election. Supporters of the alternative initiative say that it’s a better way to regulate a medical marijuana program and a more measured approach to marijuana.
Under the alternative initiative, it states that the program at a minimum will be grounded in “sound medical principles” and only “qualified persons with debilitating medical conditions as certified by health practitioners who are licensed under state law,” but it does not define what sound medical principles are or what the specific medical conditions are to quality for medical marijuana.
Boyd, a freshman lawmaker, said that a number of her constituents have reached out to her indicating they didn’t like Initiative 65, and want a “true medical marijuana” plan for people.
“I don’t know that 65A encompasses all of that, but it sets a floor and not a ceiling,” she said.
Critics of the measure say that the alternative measure is designed to confuse voters and create discord to block a majority of the voters from adopting initiative 65.
There have been more than 20 proposed bills for medical marijuana,” said Jamie Grantham, the communications director for Medical Marijuana 2020. “Not one of those bills ever made it to the floor for a vote,” adding that the Legislature had ample opportunity to address the issue in a state law.
Some law enforcement, medical figures oppose
medical marijuana proposals
Voters can also reject both proposals if they do not wish to have a medical marijuana program started in Mississippi.
Some organizations and law enforcement officials have come out in opposition to the initiatives saying that more research needs to be conducted and that medical marijuana would lead to dozens of issues for communities.
The opposition to both
Members of the state board of health and the Mississippi State Medical Association earlier this year publicly opposed Initiative 65 saying that medical marijuana presents health risks.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said that medical marijuana in most forms would likely be a challenge for local law enforcement officers to determine who is using marijuana for medicinal reasons and who is using it for recreational purposes and he foresees that, if medical marijuana were to pass, then his department would likely have devote more resources to marijuana enforcement.
“We deal with people that manipulate the system, and this is going to allow the people to abuse the system,” Johnson said.
However, Ronnie Pollard, a former lieutenant with the Desoto County Sheriff’s Department, said that he believes the stigma attached to medical marijuana can lead many people to have outdated and inaccurate views on marijuana.
Pollard, whose own daughter was certified to take medical marijuana to cope with cancer treatments, said that a medical marijuana card will be just like having a drivers license and that this would likely present only minor problems akin to almost every other prescription or over the counter medicine.
“The only thing I can say especially to law enforcement officers is before you do the stereotypical ‘it’s bad,’ please do your research, please talk to cancer patients,” Pollard said.
Ballot measure 1 will be at the bottom of the ballot alongside other ballot referendums. The ballot will also feature an elections for U.S. president, U.S. congressional offices and state judicial races.