Jimmie E. Gates
| Mississippi Clarion Ledger
On Nov. 3, voters will decide if Mississippi will join 34 other states with a medical marijuana program.
The grassroots-led Initiative 65 would require a medical marijuana program be in place by August 2021. But opponents say medical marijuana shouldn’t be part of the state Constitution and believe if the measure passes it could lead to recreational marijuana use and an influx of pot shops.
The fight over Initiative 65 and the legislative alternative Initiative 65A has divided the community with citizens against citizens, doctors against doctors, lawmakers against lawmakers. Recently, President Donald Trump became part of the debate.
Trump’s campaign sent a cease and desist order to Mississippians for Compassionate Care, the group pushing for approval of medical marijuana in Mississippi, after it sent a mailout saying “join President Trump and 3 out of 4 Mississippi Republicans who support medical marijuana.”
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Trump’s campaign sent the letter Oct. 12 saying he hasn’t taken any position on Initiative 65. A group opposed to Initiative 65 released Trump’s campaign letter to the public.
However, Mississippians for Compassionate Care Communications Director Jamie Grantham said the group stands by the information that Trump has voiced publicly support for medical marijuana, although he hasn’t taken a stand on Initiative 65.
The Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign wants voters to approve initiative 65 to make medical marijuana available to Mississippians with 22 debilitating medical conditions including ALS, cancer, epilepsy, HIV, Parkinson’s disease and sickle-cell anemia. More than 228,000 people statewide signed a petition between 2018 and Sept, 2019 leading to Initiative 65 being on the ballot.
The Mississippi Legislature added its own competing Initiative 65A to the ballot in March. Medical marijuana supporters believe the legislature proposal is an effort to confuse voters in an effort to kill Initiative 65.
The legislative measure would allow a medical marijuana program, but it doesn’t provide a timetable or framework for a program and would limit smoking of medical marijuana to terminally ill patients.
The Associated Press says initiative 65 will allow local zoning regulations that would prevent pot shops from springing up on main streets. The alternative would restrict prescribing marijuana to people with terminal illnesses, although people who are ill but not dying could use oils or other forms of the drug.
Alternative 65A leaves tax rates, possession limits, and certain other details to be set by the legislature.
When voters go to the polls, there is a two prong vote process to approve Initiative 65 or Initiative 65A. Voters are asked to answer whether they vote yes or no on either initiative. If yes, then they will be asked to vote for either Initiative 65 or Initiative 65A.
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In recent weeks, the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign have begun running television commercials with some people who would potentially benefit from medical marijuana.
There have also been news conferences and public statements from Initiative 65 opponents. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson conducted hearings in recent weeks in five cities across the state including Jackson, Hattiesburg and Meridian to allow public input about Initiative 65 and Initiative 65A.
The most prominent opposition to the initiative comes from the Mississippi Board of Health itself, as well as Gov. Tate Reeves and former Gov. Phil Bryant, who have indicated they are opposed to Initiative 65 in its current form. Reeves said in a recent statement he is against efforts to make marijuana mainstream.
Responding to Reeves, Cheri Solar Armstrong said in a Facebook post “you shouldn’t be denying any of us the relief that we could have were it legal. I’m handicapped and I have to suffer, because the only other option is opioids. I’m a senior and if there’s something that can help me, I should have access to it.”
Armstrong told the Clarion Ledger she is no druggie. She said she is a grandmother of 16 and would love if she could play with her grandchildren again. “It’s so sad that I can no longer do that,” the 65-year-old Armstrong said.
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Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, who authored the alternative Initiative 65A, said his concern with the citizen-led initiative is that it could lead to people smoking marijuana virtually on every corner. Also, Initiative 65 would allow marijuana to be smoked or vaped, which runs against the state’s efforts to discourage smoking, opponents say.
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However, Medical Marijuana 2020 officials dispute those claims saying Initiative 65 specifically ban public smoking of medical marijuana as well as prohibits dispensaries from locating within 500 feet of schools and churches.
Grantham said politicians and bureaucrats will say anything to the defeat medical marijuana. “Because the Legislature refused to act repeatedly, more than 228,000 Mississippians signed petitions to get Initiative 65 on the ballot,” Grantham said in a statement to the Clarion Ledger.
“This is a medical decision, not a political decision. It is shameful that politicians and bureaucrats want to spread propaganda and lies at the expense of some of Mississippi’s sickest patients,” Grantham said.
State Department of Health Board member Jim Perry said the board isn’t altogether opposed to medical marijuana. But he said it believes “there’s a better way to accomplish those goals” than the initiative’s present language.
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Perry said there should be more research on marijuana, pursuing additional FDA-approved drugs, and not endorsing smoking or vaping in the state Constitution. He said he believes big marijuana industry companies are pushing for approval of Initiative 65 in Mississippi.
The Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign is backed by a steering committee of medical and health care professionals, law enforcement representatives, leaders in the faith community and veterans.
The approximately 70-member steering committee includes a former attorney for the Mississippi Medical Association, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, two Republican lawmakers, Democratic lawmakers, former employees of conservative advocacy groups including Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation, a district attorney and doctors and other health care personnel.
Specifics of Initiative 65:
The Mississippi Department of Health will regulate the process by which medical marijuana is grown, processed and made available to ensure safe and secure access for qualified patients with debilitating medical conditions. Final rules and regulations shall be adopted by July 2021, and identification cards and Medical Marijuana Treatment Center licenses shall begin being issued by August 2021.
Doctors must approve patients with specific debilitating conditions listed in the initiative to receive medical marijuana as a treatment option.
The maximum amount of medical marijuana a patient could be prescribed is 2.5 ounces every 14 days.
The proposal would allow patients to smoke or vape marijuana and use edible marijuana and other products.
The measure is estimated to bring in about $10.6 million in annual revenue. That money would go back into funding the program.
Specifics of Initiative 65A
Restricts the ability to smoke marijuana to terminally ill patients.
Language of the proposal says it would be based on sound medical principles, administered by an appropriate state agency and the administering state agency should seek the input of health professionals to help design it.
The program will be limited to qualified persons with debilitating medical conditions as certified by licensed health practitioners.
Marijuana products that are used by qualified persons in the program shall be of suitable pharmaceutical quality and prepared by state-licensed manufacturers.
Treatment of qualified persons in the program should be carried out by physicians, nurses and pharmacists licensed in the state.
It will require a patient registry for enrollment, tracking and treatment. It will require reporting of information for research, analysis and outcomes.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Jimmie E. Gates at 601-961-7212 or [email protected] Follow @jgatesnews on Twitter.