Senate offers Medical Cannabis Act in an attempt to overshadow Initiative 65 program

Since the passage of Initiative 65 on the ballot in November, with over 75 percent of Mississippians showing favor to a medical marijuana program in the state, lawmakers and officials have begun to work out the details of the new program.

However, there are still holes within the amendment that will make its way into the Mississippi Constitution. Lawmakers have now taken it upon themselves to create some options for Mississippians to ensure an appropriate program moves forward.

Senator Kevin Blackwell

Senator Kevin Blackwell has filed SB 2765 entitled the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act. This act would allow for a legal cardholder who has valid registration for medical marijuana to purchase the drug without being subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner possible, as long as it falls within the allowable amount of cannabis.

“This bill is still a work in progress,” said Blackwell. “There is still a lot of work to be done during session to get it ready.” He said his motivation for filing the bill came from his disagreement in an industry being protected in the Mississippi Constitution.

The most talked about concern from officials and the overseeing agency, the Mississippi State Health Department, is that the resolution was made law by going into the constitution which prevents any future changes to the framework of the program.

“First of all, I don’t think we ought to be having an industry in the constitution,” Blackwell said. “As a business person I find it unconstitutional to my rights, the banking industry, even Mississippi’s farmers to not be protected, but this is.”

Another great concern and large misconception between those for and against Initiative 65 was the alleged tax dollars that would be generated to improve things like education or the state’s infrastructure. However, Initiative 65 does not collect any tax revenue, thus generating no real profit for Mississippi.

The bill offered by Blackwell would tax the sale of medical cannabis. While it is still being worked on, he said the intent for those dollars is to go to the Early Learning Collaborative.

“A portion would go to dual enrollment as well as Junior College and four-year university scholarships,” said Blackwell.

While SB 2765 will not overrule Initiative 65, it would be a separate program run parallel to the other. The only way for Initiative 65 to be struck down is by the Supreme Court.

The program would operate under the Mississippi Department of Health and an advisory committee would also be established consisting of 15 members. One member would be appointed by the Speaker of the House and one by the Lt. Governor. The others would be a medical doctor, nurse practitioner, dentist, optometrist, a board member of a cultivation-processing facility, one from a dispensary, one of a cannabis testing facility, one from the Department of Health, two qualifying patients, a law enforcement officer, a pharmacist and a designated caregiver. All of those individuals, besides those specified, will be appointed by the Governor. The committee will be responsible for evaluating and making recommendations to the Legislature on the program.

The bill also protects licensed marijuana growers, physicians and distributors. Blackwell said there are elements to his bill to ensure the quality of product someone is receiving that Initiative 65 did not cover.

The Senate bill classifies the following as debilitating medical conditions that could be valid for a medical marijuana prescription: Cancer, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism with self-injurious or aggressive behavior. The bill includes any other serious medical condition that could be added by the MSDH for treatment.

One big change from Initiative 65 to this bill is that it would give local governments the authority to enact ordinances and regulations for dispensaries and use as long as they do not conflict with those already set in the bill.

There was also no cap on the number of dispensaries that the state could have through Initiative 65, which caused concerns that rural areas in Mississippi could be overrun. For example, in Oklahoma there are over 2,000 dispensaries and one in 12 individuals have a medical marijuana card. Jamie Grantham, spokesperson for Initiative 65, said that Mississippi’s program is much more conservative than that of Oklahoma’s.

This bill would put a cap on dispensaries to one per county, unless your county has a population of over 30,000.

Several local officials spoke out against Initiative 65 because they believed the regulations on dispensary locations were too broad, only 500 feet from a school or church. The initiative will not allow for any changes or blocking of a “pot shop” in a specific community.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who was adamantly against Initiative 65, said the program allows for a broad amount of diagnosis to be eligible for a cannabis card. He has expressed concerns about the form in which the medical marijuana could be obtained. Initiative 65 did not put limitations on the form, meaning medical marijuana could be dispersed through gummies, vaping, joints or more.

Lawmakers attempted to thwart the confirmation of Initiative 65 with Imitative 65 A, an alternative initiative that would eventually establish a medical marijuana program by way of the Legislature. Some saw that legislation as flawed as it did not establish a program start date, legal protection for those involved or other specifications for the program. Likely due to this fact, the public did not sway towards that alternative when they went to the ballot box.

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