OXFORD • Medical marijuana supporters tout the drug as a low risk and effective way to treat pain; detractors describe it as an addictive substance that can lead to a lifetime of abuse.

Both arguments were presented to approximately two dozen people at the Gertrude C. Ford Center at the University of Mississippi, Wednesday night, during the first of a series of public hearings about two medical marijuana initiatives set to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The hearing featured a mix of speakers both for and against the citizen-sponsored Initiative 65 and its alternate measure, Initiative 65A, created by the Mississippi Legislature. Four more public hearings, hosted by the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, are scheduled through mid-October. The next will take place Thursday at the Leflore County Civic Center in Greenwood.

Saltillo’s Cody Weaver, a U.S. veteran and small business owner, spoke in favor of Initiative 65, arguing that medical marijuana can treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is common among veterans.

He said medical marijuana could benefit thousands of Mississippi veterans, and described Initiative 65 as a “carefully written, clearly defined” plan to allow the treatment of pain with a drug he described as safe and effective.

“We have an opportunity this November to offer a hand to some of these veterans,” he said.

Mississippi State Board of Health member Jim Perry spoke against legalizing marijuana, arguing that the Constitutional amendment proposed by Initiative 65 is too broad and could have dire consequences, if passed.

“For many, many people, this may sound appealing. I think many of the people for it are well intentioned,” he said. “Those people who signed those clipboards didn’t realize all the things that go along with this.”

Perry criticized how the amendment would distribute the tax collected on the sale of marijuana. All the money, he said, folds back into the marijuana industry.

“They’re marketing to kids so they can get as many people hooked as possible so they can make as much money as possible,” he said.

Although ostensibly speaking in favor of Initiative 65A, Lafayette County Sheriff Joe East largely denounced both initiatives. East argued that legalizing medical marijuana would open what he described as a “Pandora’s Box” that would lead to pain, addiction and crime.

“Initiative 65 is not about helping those with medical conditions; it’s about addiction for profit,” East said.

Although he disagreed with making marijuana legal in any capacity, he said Initiative 65A would provide state leaders a greater degree of control over the laws governing the drug.

Jamie Grantham, the Communications Director for the Medical Marijuana 2020 Campaign for Initiative 65, spoke out against the alternative Initiative 65A, calling it a “Trojan horse” introduced by the Mississippi Legislature to confuse voters.

She said state leaders have had decades and multiple opportunities to pass medical marijuana laws, if they were interested.

“They have blocked every single one. Not a single one of those bills made it to the floor for a vote,” she said. “When they put 65A on the ballot, they robbed voters of a fair up or down vote.”

She said the decision to prescribe medical marijuana should be between a patient and his or her physician.

“This is not a political issue. This is a compassion issue and a medical issue,” she said.

The second half of the hearing featured public commentary. Members of the audience were each given five minutes to speak either for or against the medical marijuana initiatives, alternating between the two.

All eight speakers, who ranged from health care workers to business owners, spoke in favor of Initiative 65.

“I have personally witnessed all the medical benefits of cannabis,” said Ash Clifford, who said he’s been supportive of legalizing marijuana for years. “The list of miracles this plant has given can go on and on ... I’m sure everyone in this room is dealing with something marijuana can help with.”

Tupelo physician and surgeon Dr. Matt Wesson said he’s personally witnessed the benefits of medical marijuana for treating pain. He said he’s supported its use to treat pain for decades.

“With many patients, medical marijuana is excellent for cancer, pain relief, seizures, the side effects of chemotherapy … and for the anxiety of depression of PTSD that so many veterans have,” Wesson said. “It is a very unique drug with substantial benefits and minimal side effects.”

David Singletary of Jackson argued that “marijuana has been a part of civilization for 10,000 years,” and said he believes it to be more effective and safer than many legal substances, including alcohol.

“I don’t need to be babysat by my government anymore,” Singletary said. “The war on drugs doesn’t work and needs to be stopped.”

November’s ballot will feature two medical marijuana initiatives: Initiative 65 and Initiative 65A, introduced by the Legislature during the previous session. The Legislature’s alternative version is more regulated than the original initiative, including limiting use of the drug to terminally ill patients.

Mississippians will have the option to either vote for the original initiative, vote for the alternative initiative, or oppose both initiatives.

Initiative Measure No. 65 proposes to amend the Mississippi Constitution to allow qualified patients to use medical marijuana to treat one or more of 22 debilitating medical conditions, as certified by Mississippi licensed physicians. If passed, the constitutional amendment would allow medical marijuana to be provided only by licensed treatment centers. The Mississippi State Department of Health would regulate and enforce the provisions of the amendment.

Just like any other prescription medication, medical marijuana would require a state physician to certify a patient as suffering from one of the included medical conditions – including cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and post-traumatic stress disorder – before being issued a marijuana ID card from the Mississippi State Department of Health. This card would enable the patient to purchase medical marijuana from a state-regulated treatment center.

Mississippi law requires a minimum of 86,183 certified signatures to be gathered, with at least 17,237 certified signatures from each of the five congressional districts as they existed in the year 2000, for an initiative measure to be placed on the ballot. According to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website, this required number of signatures represents 12% of the total number of votes cast for Governor in the last gubernatorial general election.

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