University of Mississippi marijuana research

This photo taken at the University of Mississippi, a grower displays a pile of cultivated marijuana. With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Marijuana Project at the school cultivates and supplies research-grade cannabis material for scientific and medical research.

JACKSON • Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana program in November, but state lawmakers continued to tinker with their own version Tuesday just before a key deadline.

Senate Bill 2765, the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act, at first appeared like it might not survive at all: Tuesday was the deadline for legislative committees to sign off on general bills that were authored by the opposing chamber, and a House committee did not appear ready to debate the pot program.

But late in the day, the House Ways and Means Committee met and overhauled the bill – changing its language to mirror Initiative 65, the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana that garnered nearly 74% support in last year’s election.

“Obviously, I oppose any effort to undermine the will of 74% of the voters,” said Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, who pushed the changes that he described as “a legislative version of Initiative 65, instead of a constitutional version of Initiative 65.”

That legislative version would create a medical marijuana program in Mississippi only if Initiative 65 is overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. That pending case, brought by Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, argues the process for placing a constitutional amendment before voters in Mississippi is improper and Initiative 65 should be invalidated.

The Senate advanced SB 2765 last month as a potential replacement to Initiative 65. But it included many new provisions that departed from what voters had agreed to. The Senate version would require hefty licensing fees for marijuana businesses, for example, and change how tax revenues from the plant are used. The bill also restricted the dispensaries where a patient could shop for marijuana.

The legislative proposal garnered widespread criticism from marijuana advocates, who charged that lawmakers were undermining the will of the people by failing to mirror Initiative 65’s language.

Bomgar’s amendment addressed those concerns by replacing SB 2765 with the exact language of Initiative 65. Still, the author of the bill, Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, told the Daily Journal he expects additional changes will be made as lawmakers from both chambers meet in the coming weeks before a final vote. The central goal, he said, will be “to have something there, in case the court strikes down 65.”

But House Speaker Philip Gunn told reporters Tuesday he wasn’t convinced it was essential to have backup legislation in place in case Initiative 65 is overturned.

“If the Supreme Court kicks out that vote, the Legislature could always come back and deal with it,” he said.

LUKE RAMSETH is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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