By the time competing proposals to legalize medical marijuana appear on Mississippi’s November general election ballot, it could already be the law of the land – of the state anyway.
Earlier this year, legislators passed a medical marijuana alternative to put on the ballot alongside the citizen-sponsored initiative. Supporters of the citizen-sponsored initiative cried foul, saying the alternative was meant as a decoy to kill both by splitting the vote of those who support medical marijuana.
But Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, the sponsor of the alternative, said he offered the alternative not because he opposed medical marijuana, but because the citizen-sponsored initiative did not provide enough regulation and oversight.
Now there is some talk in the Legislature of considering an effort to take up a bill that would be designed to change state law to legalize medical marijuana. Granted, passing such a bill this session would be a long shot at best. It would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers because the deadline has passed to consider such bills.
Still “I have heard discussions of doing that,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, of taking up a bill to legalize medical marijuana. “… But like with all discussions it is being put on hold because of the coronavirus.”
The Legislature, of course, suspended the session until presumably April, May or June as a safeguard against the coronavirus.
“I think it (medical marijuana) should be in general law,” Lamar said. “If we had that preference, I could support it” depending on how marijuana was regulated in the bill.
Lamar and others, such as Senate Constitution Chair Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, argue that medical marijuana should not be inserted into the state’s Constitution. In theory, a Constitution is viewed as a shorter document that outlines important issues, such as separation of powers of the branches of government, the functions of government and those inalienable rights, such as freedom of the press, of assembly, of speech and of religion. The general laws of a state or of a country are much more detailed and specific and cover legal drugs, illegal drugs and countless other issues.
But if voters approve the citizen-sponsored initiative or the legislative alternative in November, medical marijuana will be incorporated into the state’s Constitution. That is how the state’s initiative process works.
Citizen-sponsored initiatives can only be undertaken to amend the Constitution. Legislative alternatives to citizen-sponsored initiatives also are constitutional proposals.
When the Legislature in the early 1990s developed the initiative process, its goal was to make it as difficult as possible. They set up hoops and procedures designed to guarantee failure.
And in large part legislators were successful in achieving their goal of failure. Of the 71 initiatives that have been attempted, only six, counting the pending medical marijuana proposal, have made the ballot. Four of those were defeated.
Initiatives that passed and are now in the Constitution prevent the government from taking property for the use of private businesses and require a government-issued photo identification to vote.
It could be argued those issues were of a constitutional magnitude. But those initiatives that never made it to the ballot included proposals:
To mandate that Colonel Reb was the official mascot of the University of Mississippi.
To allow denturists, who work solely with denture patients, to make dentures and provide a 90 day, 100 percent guarantee on their work. There were two efforts to pass the denturist initiative.
To tax cigarettes.
To preserve the state flag.
To replace the state flag.
To place in the Constitution “Mississippi heritage” mandates, such as saluting the state flag whenever the Pledge of Allegiance to the national flag is delivered, prohibiting the banning of the playing of Dixie, mandating that schools recognize Confederate Heritage Month and the list goes on and on.
It could be argued that the Legislature should have taken up a general bill in the 2019 session before the advocates of medical marijuana completed the difficult task of garnering the 106,000 signatures of registered voters needed to place the initiative on the ballot. At this point, even if medical marijuana was approved in general law this session, the initiative and alternative still would be on the general election ballot with a chance that one of them would be approved by voters.
It is important to remember that when language is placed in the state Constitution it is difficult to remove. It takes either another successful initiative or a legislative resolution approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and then approval by the voters.
So, if medical marijuana goes into the Mississippi Constitution, it will be there for a while.