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Miss. Voters Approve Citizen-Led Medical Marijuana Initiative

By Paul Williams · Nov 4, 2020, 1:30 AM EST

Mississippi voters agreed Tuesday to offer medical marijuana for patients with certain debilitating medical conditions, approving a citizen-driven constitutional amendment to legalize medical cannabis and subject sales to a fee up to the equivalent of the state's sales tax rate.

Voters approved Initiative 65, allowing physicians to certify medical marijuana treatment for individuals who suffer from at least one of 22 ailments including cancer, muscular dystrophy and post-traumatic stress disorder, by Aug. 15, 2021. The Mississippi Department of Health, which will administer the program, will be permitted to assess a fee up to the state's 7% sales tax rate on final sales of medical marijuana to help pay for the program's costs.

In favoring Initiative 65, an amendment proposed by the group Mississippians for Compassionate Care, voters rejected a more restrictive measure, Initiative 65A, that the state's Republican-heavy Legislature placed on the ballot as a competing question.

As of late Tuesday, Initiative 65 was approved 74% to 26% with 64% of the votes reported.

Initiative 65A would have only permitted terminally ill patients to smoke medical marijuana and didn't specify what other medical conditions patients must have to obtain other medical cannabis products. The measure also would have left other particulars, such as a tax rate and possession limits, for the Legislature to hammer out in the future.

Medical marijuana is already legal in more than 30 states. Mississippians for Compassionate Care had espoused its initiative as one that "would be a godsend" for state residents, who would be able to seek treatment options that are available in more than two-thirds of the states in the country.

Jamie Grantham, a representative of Mississippians for Compassionate Care, said in a statement after the result was announced that the initiative will "help so many suffering patients and families in Mississippi."

Under the amendment, medical marijuana treatment centers can provide qualified patients with up to 2.5 ounces of medical cannabis during a 14-day period, not including the weight of other ingredients used to prepare certain products such as edibles and oils. The initiative also allows department regulations to impose a fee up to $50 on medical marijuana identification cards and "reasonable fees" on treatment center licenses.

However, a lawsuit alleging Initiative 65 didn't properly qualify for the ballot is still pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court.  Mary Hawkins Butler, the Republican mayor of the city of Madison, alleged in an Oct. 26 complaint that the initiative couldn't have properly qualified for the ballot because it violated a state constitutional limit on qualifying signatures per congressional district.

Hawkins Butler asked the court to prevent Secretary of State Michael Watson from officially declaring votes on Initiative 65 and Initiative 65A. Meanwhile, Mississippians for Compassionate Care has called the challenge a meritless, last-ditch effort from opponents of medical marijuana that seeks to prevent voters from having the final say on the matter.

The Mississippi State Board of Health, a division of the Health Department, opposed the citizen-led initiative. The board objected to the measure's empowering the department to determine a de facto tax rate on medical marijuana and argued there would be scant oversight of the department's administration of the program. The board also contended that the initiative would allow for broad use of medical marijuana beyond the specific conditions cited in the measure.

Support for the legislative measure generally fell along partisan lines. Most Republicans claimed Initiative 65A was a more responsible approach for offering medical cannabis than Initiative 65, while Democrats accused conservatives of placing the alternative question on the ballot to confuse voters and potentially lead to the defeat of both initiatives.

Voters did not have to approve either question on the ballot. They were first given a choice of whether they supported either or neither measure, and were then provided the option to vote in favor of one of the two initiatives.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said in an October online post that he was "against efforts to make marijuana mainstream," while announcing that he signed a bill allowing residents to obtain cannabis-derived medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Reeves, a first-term governor who assumed office in January, said on the campaign trail last year that he was against Initiative 65 but that he wouldn't go against the will of the voters if the question were approved. Reeves said in a Nov. 1 tweet that was voting against both measures.

Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, was the primary sponsor of H.C.R. 39, the resolution that placed Initiative 65A on the ballot. 

--Additional reporting by Sarah Jarvis and Abraham Gross. Editing by Neil Cohen.

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