House kills medical marijuana alternative without a vote

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A medical marijuana proposal that recently kept the state Senate tied in political knots into the wee hours of the morning died without a vote or discussion in a House committee on Tuesday.

“I’m interested in seeing that bill die — I think it just did die,” said Rep. Robert Johnson III, vice chairman of Ways and Means. “The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”

Senate Bill 2765 was a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program voters overwhelmingly approved in November with Ballot Initiative 65, which is now being challenged in the state Supreme Court. The bill passed the Senate only after much wrangling and a “do-over” vote in the wee hours of the morning in mid-February. It was initially drafted to create its own medical marijuana program, regardless of whether the court upholds the voter-passed program. But it was amended during heated Senate debate to take effect only if the courts strike down the voter-passed program.

The legislative move had many Initiative 65 supporters crying foul, claiming the Legislature was trying to usurp the will of the voters. After lawmakers failed for years to approve use of medical marijuana despite a groundswell of public support, voters took matters in hand in November with Initiative 65.

Jessica Rice, director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association was among many watching the legislative alternative marijuana bill with skepticism and trepidation. She questioned whether lawmakers were truly trying to provide a backstop in case courts strike down Initiative 65. If so, she said, they could have attempted to codify Initiative 65, not come up with a proposal with higher taxes and more or different regulations.

“Our position is that the people have already had an option to vote on a legislative created program, and they chose not to,” Rice said last week. “Just because this is up before the Supreme Court does not give the Legislature a second bite at the apple … I think this is about control — they want to be able to be in control of the program, but people have already rejected that.”

But many state leaders and lawmakers had lamented that Initiative 65 was drafted to favor the marijuana industry and is just short of legalized recreational use. It puts the Mississippi State Department of Health in charge of the program, with no oversight by elected officials. It also prevents standard taxation of the marijuana, and any fees collected by the health department can only be used to run and expand the marijuana program, not go into state taxpayer coffers. The measure allows little regulation by local governments, no limits on the number of dispensaries and otherwise leaves many specifics … unspecified.

The Senate proposal would have taxed medical marijuana, with a 4% excise at cultivation, and with a 7% sales tax patients would pay, which was originally 10% in earlier drafts of the bill. Most of the taxes collected would have gone to education, including early learning and college scholarships.

The bill also would have imposed large licensing fees on growers and dispensary shop owners. Originally, those fees would have been $100,000 for growers and $20,000 for dispensaries. Those were reduced to $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, on Thursday night. Other changes were made in an effort to assuage those who believed such fees would keep small businesses and farms out of the game.

The bill barely gained the three-fifths vote it needed to pass the Senate. It faced a Tuesday deadline for the Ways and Means Committee to pass it on to the full House. Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, who late Tuesday said he was still undecided on what to do with the bill, did not call a meeting to take it up, thus killing it.

House Speaker Philip Gunn said: “The issue, or the challenge here is that the people voted on it in November, and they spoke pretty strongly … I know there is a lawsuit, but that can be dealt with later if we need to. If the Supreme Court throws out that vote, then the Legislature can come back and deal with it. If they uphold it, well then I don’t know what the Legislature would have to do with it then.”