JACKSON • The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case to decide the fate of Initiative 65, the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program.
The city of Madison and its mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler, filed a lawsuit opposing the medical marijuana constitutional amendment just days before voters overwhelmingly endorsed it in November.
Butler opposes legalization and says the way the marijuana question reached the ballot was improper. Attorneys for the state have called her suit "woefully untimely" and argued in court filings her technical interpretation of constitutional language that regulates ballot initiatives is off-base.
A flurry of court papers were filed in recent months, including from groups not named in the case but wanting to stake out a position before the court on medical marijuana legalization. But Wednesday will be the first time attorneys for Butler and lawyers from Attorney General Lynn Fitch's office — representing Secretary of State Michael Watson — will be able to make their case in-person to the nine-member high court. It's unclear when a ruling could occur.
Mississippi lawmakers proposed creating a backup medical marijuana program earlier this year, in case the court invalidates Initiative 65. But that plan died amid public backlash and concerns that the Legislature wanted to create a program that looked drastically different from the initiative's language.
What's the status of Initiative 65?
Even as Initiative 65 faces legal jeopardy, the Mississippi State Department of Health is working to meet an August deadline to set up the program's production, regulatory and licensing systems.
A marijuana advisory committee made of a dozen Mississippi officials and experts met this week to hear the Health Department's progress and weigh in on issues such as the benefits of indoor, outdoor and greenhouse pot growing, and which types the state should allow for licensed cultivators.
The agency is also crafting regulations for advertising and marketing of marijuana, testing, and packaging and labeling. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the agency was leaning toward a general ban on all "mass marketing" and advertising of marijuana products in the state, partly to dissuade use by children. He noted the agency's preliminary plans also call for plain black labeling and child-resistant packaging.
"We tried to adopt best practices from other states," Dobbs said.
Health Department officials also discussed their efforts to set up a "seed to sale" management system that would ensure the state knows where marijuana products are located at every stage. This could allow the state to issue recall notices on marijuana, and would also allow officials to track how much marijuana each patient has purchased.
According to Initiative 65's language, state health officials have until July 1 to adopt rules and regulations for the drug. And they must start issuing medical marijuana ID cards and dispensary licenses no later than Aug. 15.
What's behind the case challenging Initiative 65?
Days before the Nov. 3 election, Butler and the city of Madison filed its lawsuit challenging the initiative's legality based on how signatures were gathered for Initiative 65.
The Mississippi Constitution says a certain number of voter signatures are required to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. That language from the 1990s says signatures must be equally split among the state's five congressional districts.
But Mississippi now has only four congressional districts due to a shrinking population. The signature-gathering requirement was never updated.
Mississippi's former Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann approved Initiative 65 for the ballot in 2019 after organizers gathered enough signatures from the five former districts. The AG's office in 2009 issued an opinion that this five-district strategy met constitutional requirements.
But attorneys for the Madison mayor argue in her lawsuit that it doesn't. The suit says when district lines shifted after the 2000 Census to create four districts, it created a "mathematical impossibility" that Initiative 65 organizers could meet the requirements — one-fifth of signatures can't be evenly distributed across only four districts.
AG attorneys argued in filings last year that Butler's interpretation is wrong, and that regardless the lawsuit could have been filed years ago, over other ballot initiatives — not days before voters were set to consider medical marijuana.
Butler's technical interpretation of the constitutional language would eliminate Mississippians' right to propose and enact initiatives, the government attorneys wrote. And her argument would also potentially call into question past successful ballot initiatives that also gathered signatures from the five former districts.