The basic principles of the medical marijuana initiative approved by Mississippi voters in November — but struck down recently by the state Supreme Court — should be honored, members of the Senate Public Health Committee were told Thursday.
Ken Newburger, executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, conceded to the committee that there are areas where the now invalidated Initiative 65 could be improved, such as allowing local governments more leeway in zoning medical marijuana dispensaries and not placing the entire program under the umbrella of the underfunded and under-resourced Mississippi State Department of Health.
But Newburger, who worked to pass the medical marijuana proposal, said any legislation passed in response to the Supreme Court striking down Initiative 65 should adhere to the principles of:
• Allowing broad access to medical marijuana.
• Giving doctors the authority to certify usage of medical marijuana where they believe it would be beneficial.
• Allowing the free market to dictate who could operate a medical marijuana-related business.
• Ensuring the medical marijuana program is self-sustaining.
The hearing of the Senate Public Heath Committee was the first since the Supreme Court ruled last month the medical marijuana initiative and the entire ballot initiative process invalid. Legislative leaders and Gov. Tate Reeves have discussed the possibility of a special session to consider both the reinstatement of the medical marijuana program and entire initiative process where citizens can gather signatures to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.
Both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, watched a portion of the hearing from the back of a crowded committee room at the state Capitol, but left before the hearing was completed.
Senate Public Health Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said Thursday’s hearing was a step in determining the type of program the Legislature should consider. The issue that must be decided first, Bryan said, is what kind of program the state should have — a recreational marijuana program, a tightly controlled medical marijuana program or a loosely controlled medical marijuana program.
Asked if a special session could be expected soon, Bryan said, “I do not believe there will be a special session until there is some consensus between the House and the Senate. If I was governor, I would not call one before then.”
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, questioned whether it would be wiser just to approve a recreational program.
“There’s a dichotomy between what people want and what the science says,” Wiggins said. “Are we putting doctors in a position to do something that they don’t have the proper data to safely do?”
He asked, “Why don’t we just jump to recreational with this?”
State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs, whose Department of Health was tasked with enacting Initiative 65 before it was struck down by the Supreme Court, said more regulation is needed in whatever the Legislature approves. He said there is research showing that marijuana is beneficial for some health issues such as nausea and vomiting associated with cancer treatments, but the research is inconclusive in other area. He said there are also risks with the use of marijuana, especially for children.
Dr. Larry Walker, director emeritus of the National Center for Natural Product Research at the University of Mississippi, said, “I do believe there are legitimate needs” for medical marijuana. “I think they should be met in a medical way.”
Walker said with the 2.5 ounces of marijuana allowed to be sold to a person every two weeks for medical purposes under Initiative 65, “You could get your whole family high every day and still have enough to sell 40 or 50 joints.”
Walker held up to the committee a 1-ounce bag of dried parsley to give perspective. He and Dobbs also spoke of the need to regulate the amount of THC, the active psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, used on a daily basis.
Dobbs said the state Board of Health that oversees his agency is opposed to the legalizing of the smoking of marijuana in most instances because of its health risks, though he conceded it appeared most people oppose that position.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, broached the possibility of allowing municipalities to ban the sale of medical marijuana by a vote of its citizens. Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, said that could penalize people who need marijuana for health reasons.
Shari Veazey, executive director of the Mississippi Municipal League, said she believed her organization would support an opt out provision for local governments.
The Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana language after it was challenged by the city of Madison and its mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler. The lawsuit claimed the initiative process was unconstitutional because it required the signatures to place an issue on the ballot to be gathered equally from five congressional districts, though the state lost a U.S. House seat after the 2000 Census and now has four.