Ahead of I65 launch, Senate bill could create new medical marijuana program

It appears that the Mississippi Legislature could be moving toward adopting its own medical marijuana program following the November passage of Initiative 65, a ballot measure that passed with nearly 58% of the vote over 65A—the alternative offered by lawmakers.

Introduced by Senator Kevin Blackwell (R – District 19), the ‘Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act’ could present a solution to several of the qualms that some had with the grassroots initiative that is now cemented in the state constitution following November’s election and set to launch in August of this year.

The Mississippi State Department of Health, who publicly opposed Initiative 65, is now obligated to administer the program after voicing concerns about the inability to make changes along the way because of its implementation into the constitution.

“The way that 65 is constructed, it will be in the constitution. In the state constitution, chiseled in stone such that whatever is in there, we cannot alter from a regulatory perspective and whatever is in there cannot be altered from a legislative perspective,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said in October.

By nature, this bill, even if it does pass, could be altered in future sessions as new issues arise.

While Initiative 65 does not generate revenue for the state through tax dollars, only placing funds back into the medical marijuana program, SB 2765 would tax medical cannabis to fund the creation of ‘the Mississippi Workforce and College Opportunity Scholarship Program which would “provide last-dollar scholarships to students enrolled in full-time public and private colleges and universities and workforce training programs”

Still administered by a licensed physician, medical marijuana cards would be given to those with “debilitating medical conditions, which the bill defines as the following:

  (i)  Cancer, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism with self-injurious or aggressive behavior, or the treatment of these conditions;

(ii)  A chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following:  cachexia or wasting syndrome; severe, debilitating pain; severe nausea; seizures; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including, but not limited to, those characteristic of multiple sclerosis; or

(iii)  Any other serious medical condition or its treatment added by the department [of health], as provided for in Section 6 of this act.

Another difference from Initiative 65 is the amount of medical marijuana that a patient can posses. I65 allows for the issuance of 2.5 ounces every 14 days while this legislation’s limit would be 1.5 ounces.

Sections of the bill detail the limitations against using medical marijuana while driving, operating any motor vehicle or when being under the influence would “constitute negligence or professional malpractice.”

The City of Madison is currently challenging Initiative 65 in court over the city’s inability to set regulations on dispensaries. This bill does allow cities to set certain ordinances and specifies that “the physical address of the prospective medical cannabis establishment that is not within two thousand (2,000) feet of a public or private school, church, or daycare existing before the date of the medical cannabis establishment application.” Language in Initiative 65 has a restriction of 500 feet from a school or church.

As for who would oversee this program, the bill details a 15-member advisory committee:

There is created an advisory committee of fifteen (15) members comprised of:  one (1) member of the House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House; one (1) member of the Senate appointed by the Lieutenant Governor; one (1) medical doctor; one (1) nurse practitioner; one (1) dentist; one (1) optometrist; one (1) board member or principal officer of a cultivation-processing facility; one (1) board member or principal officer of a dispensary; one (1) board member or principal officer of a cannabis testing facility; one (1) member of the Department of Health; two (2) qualifying patients; one (1) law enforcement officer; one (1) pharmacist; and one (1) designated caregiver.  All members of the advisory committee other than the members of the House and Senate shall be appointed by the Governor.

The Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act remains in the early stages of the legislative process, but if it does pass, it would not replace the initiative that over 766,000 Mississippians voted for on election day and would instead operate alongside it.