Dueling medical marijuana initiatives face a hard road

Published 4:20 pm Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Mississippi voters will face the question of legalized medical marijuana use on a broader scale on the November ballot. Medical marijuana is already legal in Mississippi in the narrowest of senses. 

Legal, yes. Available? Not really. Former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed Mississippi’s very narrow current medical marijuana bill into law in 2014 with help from some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers. Harper Grace’s Law was supposed to allow patients to obtain treatment with cannabis oil at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. 

Clinical trials have been conducted with a limited number of patients with good results. UMMC announced in July 2019 a one-year extension of the clinical trial of a new marijuana-derived drug to treat seizures in children.

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State voters will be offered two versions of a medical marijuana amendment on Mississippi’s Nov. 3, 2020, general election ballot. Initiative 65 was sponsored by the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign and was placed on the ballot through the state’s voter initiative process. 

That process allows lawmakers to draft their own version of the amendment. The Legislature authorized Alternative 65 to appear on the ballot alongside Initiative 65. Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the more restrictive Alternative 65 over the original Initiative 65 submitted by initiative petitioners.

When the Mississippi Legislature offered state voters a chance to adopt a voter initiative process during the 1992 regular session, they responded by overwhelmingly approving it by just over 70 percent in the Nov. 3, 1992 general election.

The initiative process in Mississippi is one that was designed by the Mississippi Legislature to be difficult for those citizens who wish to circumvent lawmakers and get into the business of directly writing or changing laws for themselves.

There is a legislative back door in the process that gives lawmakers the literal right to have the last word — and that was exactly what state voters approved in 1992. The ballot language must be submitted to the Legislature and if the lawmakers choose to do so, they can submit an alternative to the initiative on the same ballot.

Since 1993, there have been 63 instances in which various Mississippi citizens or groups have attempted to utilize the state’s initiative process. Like a carton of milk left unconsumed, 48 of those attempts simply expired — dying on the legal vine for lack of certified signatures or other procedural deficiencies. 

Of the remaining 15, three passed at the ballot box, three failed at the ballot box, three were ruled invalid or unconstitutional by judges, one was withdrawn by the measure’s instigators and five remain either active or filed.

Mississippi voters have already seen the impact of dueling ballot initiative questions — one from initiative petitioners and a second crafted by legislators. The 2015 battle over public education funding as voters chose between Initiative 42 and Alternative Measure 42A demonstrated the confusion generated by the dueling ballot questions.

In the end in 2015, state voters rejected changing the state constitution to boost K-12 school funding, but those same voters embraced the original Initiative 42 language over the legislative 42A alternative in a political exercise that pitted what the voters perhaps thought should be done with education funding against how the same voters perceived the state should accomplish it.

Passing a medical marijuana initiative in Mississippi was always a stretch in state often referenced as the “gold buckle of the Bible Belt,” but the addition of an alternative amendment that frames the process as one with strong partisan overtones raises the hurdles even higher for the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.