Special session urged for marijuana


State lawmakers are urging Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session to revive a state medical marijuana program after the state Supreme Court invalidated Initiative 65 last week over process, not the merits of medical marijuana.

The calls come after the Supreme Court on Friday struck down the state’s medical marijuana initiative 65 that was approved by 766,478, or 58% of the 1.3 million votes cast in November, siding with Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler in an appeal of the process by which the measure was placed on the ballot.

Taking into account the number of registered voters statewide, Initiative 65’s approval drops to about 40%.

Still, the decision has sparked cries from voters and some state legislators for Reeves to call a special session of the Legislature to address the state’s flawed ballot initiative process and to discuss the fate of the state’s medical marijuana program.

Reeves told Scott Simmons of WAPT on Tuesday that he has not ruled out calling a special session but the issue is still up in the air.

“(A special session) is something we are certainly willing to consider,” Reeves told WAPT. “We are a long way from being able to make that decision.”

A special session has been estimated to cost $35,000 per day and the process for reviving the state’s ballot initiative process much less the state’s medical marijuana program could be lengthy.

“…We have three branches of government, and it is the judicial branch’s job to interpret the law. I don’t know that I would have ruled one way or another, but I respect the court and the roles they play, and so now, it is incumbent on the legislative branch to come back and fix this process," Reeves said. “The people have spoken. They made their voice heard and voted overwhelmingly to have a program and Mississippi should have that.”

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hoseman said Tuesday that he is in favor of calling a special session.

“Citizen-driven ballot initiatives are an important part of policy-making, and I support reenacting the ballot initiative process,” Hoseman said. “I also support a medical marijuana program, as evidenced by the Senate twice passing back-stop legislation which did not survive in the House. We are in the process of talking to Senators about the Supreme Court ruling as it relates to both issues and how to proceed.

“If the Governor chooses to call the Legislature back into Special Session, the Senate will be ready. Because Special Sessions are expensive, my preference is to approach this situation in an organized fashion so when we do return we can minimize costs to taxpayers.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-District 56, which includes Hinds and Maidson counties, also supports a special session to address the initiative process.

“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said Monday in a statement that did not mention medical marijuana, the AP reports. “If the Legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law.”

The governor is the only one who can reconvene the Legislature.

“At the heart of the ruling is the fact that initiatives need signatures from five congressional districts to get on the ballot, but because of Mississippi’s stagnant population, the state has only four districts,” the AP reports.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler has not responded to a request for comment on this story.

However, the mayor argued in the appeal that the Mississippi Constitution itself provides that a petition by voters proposing an amendment to the constitution must have no more than 20% of its required signatures from each of the state’s congressional districts.

The state had five congressional districts some 20-plus years ago and that was the districting on which the initiative and referendum option was passed.

The mayor’s appeal argued that because the state Constitution contains the 20-percent rule, it is a mathematical impossibility to have the required number of signatures as 20% times four Congressional districts equals 80, not 100. 

“Pursuant to the duty imposed on us by article 15, section 273(9), of the Mississippi Constitution, we hold that the petition submitted to the Secretary of State seeking to place Initiative 65 on the ballot for the November 3, 2020, general election was insufficient,” Justice Josiah D. Coleman writes in the 58-page Supreme Court majority opinion issued Friday. 

Hawkins-Butler had said Initiative 65 was put before voters unconstitutionally. Her appeal technically challenged the sufficiency of the petition itself, not the marijuana language.

“Because Initiative 65 was placed on the ballot without meeting the section 273(3) prerequisites for doing so, it was placed on the ballot in violation of the Mississippi Constitution,” Coleman’s decision states. “Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending — something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court. We grant the petition, reverse the Secretary of State’s certification of Initiative 65, and hold that any subsequent proceedings on it are void.”

Justice James D. Blackwell wrote the dissenting opinion Friday and was joined in part by Robert P. Chamberlin who dissented in a separate opinion joined by James W. Kitchens.

“With respect to the majority, this case involves a pure question of Mississippi law — interpretation of Mississippi’s Constitution,” Chamberlain wrote in the dissenting opinion. “And I strongly disagree that the Secretary of State acted in an unconstitutional manner by following Mississippi law. I am also hard pressed to see how a federal court’s almost twenty-year-old injunction, aimed solely at federal congressional elections, has now somehow unintentionally destroyed Mississippi’s 28 constitutional citizen-based ballot-initiative process. But that is exactly what the majority is saying.

“…For the reasons addressed above, the Petitioners simply cannot show the Secretary of State acted unconstitutionally by relying on Mississippi law when he greenlighted Initiative 65’s placement on the ballot. Therefore, I dissent.”

The mayor has said she is not opposed to a well-regulated pure medical marijuana program for the truly suffering.

Hawkins-Butler has said amending the constitution is a solemn process and the solution is for the Legislature to amend Section 273(3) given the loss of a congressional district.

She said the sick and dying people of Mississippi deserve a controlled, well-regulated program overseen by universities, doctors and pharmacists — which is why she opposes Initiative 65.

The language in the Constitution decriminalizes the purchase, prescribing, sale and processing of medical marijuana, provides for annual cards — not prescriptions — and exempts the holder from criminal or civil sanctions. It also allows for the possession of up to 2.5 ounces per 14-day period or 250 marijuana pipes.

One of the most concerning aspects Hawkins-Butler has said is the restriction on a city’s ability to zone “medical marijuana treatment centers” which includes growers and processors. She has said that such significant changes written into the Mississippi Constitution should be enacted lawfully and have not.

In support of the mayor, amicus briefs stacked up, including briefs from state Sens. Angela Hill and Kathy Chism, State Rep. Jill Ford, the Mississippi Municipal League, the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association, the Mississippi State Medical Association, and the American Medical Association. 

“We are not against a well-regulated medical marijuana program for the suffering,” Hawkins-Butler told the Journal previously. “We have grave concerns about what Initiative 65 contains, and more importantly to our suit, how it was passed.”

Initiative 65 is not what voters in the Nov. 3 election thought they were voting for, the mayor has said.

Initiative 65 does not allow doctors to write specific prescriptions and the law grants an “identification card” that’s good for a year, and allows five ounces of marijuana a month for smoking, which equals about 300 joints a month. 

Initiative 65 puts no limits on edible marijuana or marijuana for vaping and it doesn’t control the strength or content of the marijuana. 

The law also prohibits limits on how many growers and dispensaries the state can have, and it bars any limits on the cost of marijuana. 

Furthermore, the mayor has said, it prevents cities from regulating who can grow or sell medical marijuana and where.

Under the new law, pot shops and other dispensaries cannot operate until they are licensed by the Mississippi Department of Health, which has not issued any regulations or licenses yet. 

“If the amendment is struck down, then dispensaries can’t operate unless the Mississippi Legislature enacts legislation to replace the amendment,” Butler had said before Friday’s ruling. 

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