Mississippi Lawmakers Approve Changes to Medical Cannabis Law

Mississippi lawmakers last week approved a bill mandating changes to the state’s Medical Cannabis Act, the bill to legalize medical marijuana that was passed by the legislature last year. The measure, House Bill 1158, now heads to the desk of Republican Governor Tate Reeves for his consideration.

Republican Senator Kevin Blackwell, a Republican and one of the bill’s authors, said that the legislation clarifies provisions of Mississippi’s medical marijuana law, which was passed by state lawmakers in 2022.

“Unfortunately the Department of Health in their rules and regs probably accepted some things that were not intentioned by the bill,” Blackwell said on the Senate floor on March 8. “So we are trying to correct those … and we do so in the bill.”

The primary author of the legislation, Republican Representative Lee Yancey, gave an example of a rule enacted by state regulators that would be rolled back by House Bill 158 if the governor signs the legislation.

“The Board of Medical Licensure began implementing additional requirements for doctors to be able to certify people, so… and that was not in the bill. So, it was not our intention for there to be any additional requirement,” said Yancey, who noted that the bill is designed to help Mississippi’s medical marijuana program operate more smoothly. “So, they have to do those eight hours the first year, and then there’s five hours of continuing education every year after that. We felt like that was sufficient just to keep them apprised of what the new research was showing.”

In an attempt to prevent similar discrepancies between state laws and regulations passed by state agencies in the future, the measure also includes language designed to prevent regulators from passing rules that do not comply with the state’s medical marijuana statute.

“No state agency, political subdivision or board shall implement any rule, regulation, policy, or requirement that is contrary to the provisions of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act,” reads the text of the bill.

Bill Makes Several Changes To Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act

House Bill 1158 also makes investigations by state agencies, including citations issued by the Department of Health, confidential until an investigation into the matter has been completed. An earlier version of the bill kept such records out of public view indefinitely, but some senators argued that keeping such material off the public record for any length of time is not acceptable.

“I think if it was put out in transparency, it would dispel any of the back and forth on social media,” said Republican Senator Angela Burks Hill, one of five senators who voted against the bill. “I think hiding that is only going to fuel that speculation.”

The bill also makes the physical address of all medical marijuana companies except dispensaries confidential. During public hearings on the legislation, Yancey said the provision was designed to protect the security of cannabis operators, who often must keep large quantities of product and cash onsite.

House Bill 1158 also requires the Mississippi Department of Health to approve a patient’s application to use medical marijuana within 10 days, a reduction from the current requirement of 30 days. The change was enacted to help address a backlog in processing applications by the agency.

Other changes include allowing patients to conduct follow-up visits with a doctor other than the one who first approved the medical marijuana recommendation without experiencing a lapse in certification or access to medicinal cannabis. Additionally, medical professionals who have approved a patient to use medical marijuana are now permitted to assist them with filling out the required state application for a medical marijuana identification card.

Another provision of the legislation allows dispensaries to sell topical medical cannabis products that can not be ingested to adults 21 and older without a medical marijuana identification card. The bill also allows licensed medical marijuana dispensaries to sell hemp-derived products that are legal under federal law, including low-THC CBD formulations. The bill also specifies that hemp products are not subject to control by the state’s Medical Cannabis Act.

The bill also permits the Department of Health to contract with private laboratories to conduct compliance testing of medical marijuana products. Such labs, however, are not permitted to conduct commercial analyses for licensed medical marijuana businesses. Under the legislation, labs conducting testing for licensed medical marijuana businesses are permitted to become licensed cannabis transporters or to contract the services of an independent licensed transporter. 

The legislation also allows licensed medical marijuana businesses to use marijuana imagery in company logos and other branding. Photographs of medical marijuana products for sale may be posted online by dispensaries.

House Bill 1158 received final approval from the Mississippi legislature on March 14. The bill now awaits action from the governor.

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Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Life Sentence for Weed Possession

The Mississippi Supreme Court voted last week to uphold a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a man who was convicted of possessing less than three ounces of weed. The court voted 6-3 to confirm the penalty for the defendant, Allen Russell, who was sentenced under Mississippi’s habitual offender statute.

“Because the trial judge followed the law to the letter, we affirm,” Justice Robert P. Chamberlin wrote in the majority opinion quoted by the Epoch Times. “The trial judge did not have sentencing discretion in this case.”

Russell was arrested in 2017 for possessing five bags of cannabis weighing a combined total of 79.5 grams (just over 2.5 ounces) that police discovered while executing a search warrant. Lab analysis of two of the bags determined they contained 43.71 grams (about 1.54 ounces) of cannabis, and Russell was indicted on one charge of possessing more than 30 grams but less than 250 grams of cannabis.

Normally, a conviction on such a charge would carry a sentence of up to three years in prison. But Russell was also charged with being a violent habitual offender, subjecting him to a mandatory life sentence without parole upon conviction.

Sentenced Under Mississippi Habitual Offender Law

During his trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Russell had three prior felony convictions, two for burglary and one for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Under Mississippi state law, a burglary is considered a violent offense, even if no evidence of actual violence against a person is presented in a case.

Russell had pleaded guilty to the burglary charges in 2004 and was given two concurrent 15-year sentences. He spent a little more than 8.5 years in prison and was released in 2014, the same year that Mississippi law was changed to classify burglary as a violent crime, even if no evidence of violence is presented in court.

A jury found Russell guilty of the possession charge in 2019 and the court found that he was a violent habitual offender under the law, sentencing him to life behind bars. Russell then sued to overturn the sentence, arguing it violated his right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and his constitutional right not to be subjected to ex post facto laws.

Chief Justice Michael Randolph wrote in a separate concurring opinion that Russell’s life sentence was not solely for cannabis possession and that he had been treated leniently by the courts in previous criminal cases, noting that the defendant “is no stranger to the criminal justice system.”

“Russell has received a harsh punishment not because he possessed a small amount of marijuana, but because he has repeatedly refused to abide by the laws enacted to protect all the citizens of our state,” Randolph wrote.

The chief justice added that it is “pertinent to note that the arrest came while law enforcement was attempting to serve another drug-related warrant on Russell as well as execute a search warrant on his premises.”

Justice Josiah Coleman wrote in a dissenting opinion that Russell has been poorly treated by the courts. He noted that there is uncertainty regarding Russell’s criminal history, writing that “burglary was not considered a per se crime of violence until” state law was changed in 2014. The defendant “pled guilty to two counts of burglary in 2004,” 10 years after the change. But “burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary” before the law was changed. The dissenting judges questioned if Russell actually had a violent criminal history.

“Prior to July 1, 2014, burglary was only considered a crime of violence if actual violence took place during the burglary,” reads the dissenting opinion. “We do not know whether Russell’s burglaries involved actual violence, but the fact that he was allowed the opportunity by the sentencing court to participate in the Regimented Inmate Discipline Program tends to indicate they did not.”

Appeals Court Confirmed Sentence Last Year

Last year, an appeals court voted 5-5 in Russell’s case, with the tie vote not enough to overturn the sentence. In an opinion upholding the penalty, the judges wrote that the sentence is in accordance with state law. But several dissenting judges wrote that courts can and should make exceptions when warranted.

“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” appeals court Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote in the 2021 dissenting opinion. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”

The case was then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in last week’s decision.

A petition on Change.org organized by the group Check Your Privilege is calling on Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves to commute Russell’s life sentence. As of Tuesday, the petition had garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

“There is no amount of cannabis that should land someone a life sentence,” reads the petition. “Allen Russel was found guilty of possession in 2019 over just an ounce of weed, meanwhile laws around recreational use are softening all across the US.”

Mason Tvert, a longtime cannabis activist and partner at cannabis policy firm VS Strategies, criticized the sentence, suggesting it should be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It is tragically ironic that this man’s life is being taken away from him for possessing a substance which, used alone, has never taken a life,” Tvert wrote in an email to High Times. “This case certainly warrants further review and ought to be reversed.”

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Mississippi Legislator Brings Hemp to Governor’s Office

One Mississippi Senator brought 3.5 grams worth of hemp to show Governor Tate Reeves, who has recently expressed opposition regarding the amount of cannabis allowed for the state’s medical cannabis program, in an effort to educate him about what a reasonable amount of cannabis looks like.

Amidst the many topics that are waiting to be discussed in the 2022 Mississippi legislative session, the legislative body has been building a medical cannabis program for some time now. Although both the House and Senate have expressed support for a medical cannabis program, Governor Tate Reeves’s opposition is one of the main reasons for the program’s uncertainty.

In an attempt to drive home final details for the state’s medical cannabis program, Senator Kevin Blackwell arranged a meeting with Reeves on January 5. As one of the main legislators working on building the program, Blackwell hoped to educate Reeves by bringing in a small amount of hemp as a visual guide.

The Mississippi Free Press spoke with Blackwell, who described the meeting as amicable. “I thought it went well. “[The governor] was receptive, appreciative of the meeting. Hopefully we moved the bar a little bit closer to an agreement,” Blackwell said. “He was non-committal, so they’re going to think about what we said and get back with us.” Blackwell also shared that the proposed legislation currently sits at a four ounces per month, which Blackwell believes is a “reasonable” amount. “I took samples to show him what an ounce actually looks like—what 3.5 grams actually looks like.”

On Meta (formerly Facebook) on December 28, 2021, Reeves wrote that he would absolutely support a medical cannabis bill if it were “truly medical marijuana.” He argued that the amount a single patient can use per day exceeds what he believes should be allowed, according to the current bill proposal. “The bill allows any individual to get 3.5 grams of marijuana per day. A simple google search shows that the average joint has 0.32 grams of marijuana. Therefore any one individual can get enough weed to smoke 11 joints a day. Every day,” he wrote.

He also expressed his belief that it isn’t medical at all if there aren’t any doctors involved in the process. “Unlike any other drug, this program allows virtually unlimited access to marijuana once you qualify. There is no pharmacist involved and no doctor setting the amount. There is only what legislators call a ‘budtender’ serving you pot.” He concludes with a wish to reduce the “tremendous” amount of cannabis that the current bill text would allow. “I hope that legislative leaders will see fit to consider reducing the tremendous amount of weed they seek to make legally accessible so that I can sign their bill and we can put this issue to rest.”

Despite Reeves’ opposition, and threats of vetoing the bill if the possession limits don’t change, Blackwell is confident that the legislation has put together a comprehensive program for patients. “Lee Yancey’s been great. Speaker [Philip Gunn] and Jason White have been great. It has been an eye-opening experience to go through a bill of this nature. I don’t know if any bill has been vetted like this…with the transparency that’s occurred,” Blackwell stated.

The bill is in the hands of Lt. Gov. Hosemann at the moment, who will soon send the bill to the Public Health Committee. According to the Mississippi Free Press, Senator Hob Bryan has confirmed his support and that he will move it to the Senate floor for consideration, “as soon as is reasonably practical.”

Voters approved a medical cannabis program in 2020 through Initiative 65, although it was overturned by a Supreme Court decision in May 2021. As a result, state lawmakers set out to draft their own medical cannabis bill. The draft proposal was initially 144 pages, crafted in tandem between both House and Senate representatives. However, after being sent to the governor for changes, it increased to a 277-page document.

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Mississippi Governor Won’t Sign Medical Cannabis Bill Without Major Changes

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves revealed on Tuesday that he will not sign a medical cannabis bill proposed by state lawmakers, saying the legislation allows patients access to too much medical cannabis. In a message posted to Facebook, the Republican governor wrote that he would support the measure if the legislature cuts the daily cap on medical marijuana purchases in half.

“I hope that legislative leaders will see fit to consider reducing the tremendous amount of weed they seek to make legally accessible so that I can sign their bill and we can put this issue to rest,” Reeves wrote.

Mississippi voters approved Initiative 65, a ballot measure to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana, in November 2020. However, in May, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the statute, citing constitutional inconsistencies in the state’s initiative process.

In September, negotiators with the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives announced that they had reached an agreement on a medical cannabis plan that has key differences compared to Initiative 65, including provisions that would allow local jurisdictions to regulate where medical marijuana could be cultivated, processed and sold.

Reeves Rejects Cap On Cannabis Purchases in Mississippi

On Tuesday, Reeves said that the bill drafted by lawmakers addresses some of his worries about launching a medical marijuana program in Mississippi. But the governor added that he is still concerned with the question of how much cannabis a patient will be permitted to purchase.

“Unlike any other drug, this program allows virtually unlimited access to marijuana once you qualify. There is no pharmacist involved and no doctor setting the amount,” said Reeves. “There is only what legislators call a ‘budtender’ serving you pot.”

Reeves noted that under the legislature’s plan, patients would be allowed to purchase up to 3.5 grams of medical cannabis per day. Writing that a “simple google search shows that the average joint has 0.32 grams of marijuana,” Reeves said that each patient would be entitled to enough cannabis for 11 joints every day. The governor then offered patient statistics from Oklahoma, where about 376,000 patients have registered for the medical cannabis program.

“An equivalent sign-up rate in Mississippi would yield 300,000 Mississippians with a card to get up to 11 joints per day. That would allow the disbursement of 3.3 million joints per day in our state, which is the equivalent of approximately 100 million joints per month,” Reeves extrapolated. “That would be 1.2 billion legal joints sold in Mississippi per year. Call me crazy, but I just think that’s too broad of a starting point.”

Instead, Reeves suggested that lawmakers drastically cut the daily cap on medical cannabis purchases.

“I am asking the Legislature to simply cut that amount in half to start the program,” he wrote. “It is a simple fix.”

Reeves also suggested that the limit on medical cannabis could be revisited if the amended cap proves to be insufficient for patient needs. 

“We can sit down five years from now and take a thorough review of the actual outcomes,” the governor wrote. “But—as the dad of three daughters that I love dearly—I cannot put my name on a bill that puts that much marijuana on the streets of Mississippi.”

Lawmakers will take up the bill during the new legislative session, which begins early next month. Many cannabis activists are already frustrated with Reeves for failing to follow through on plans to call a special session to consider the matter.

“This program was supposed to have been up and running already,” Citizens Alliance of Mississippi founder Shea Dobson told reporters last month. “I mean, we were supposed to have had medical marijuana in place right now as we speak. And every day that goes by, the governor moves the goalposts; we continue to see patients suffer more.”

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Mississippi Governor Stalls Medical Cannabis Bill

There’s a standoff over medical cannabis in Mississippi, with the governor and state lawmakers still at odds over provisions in the proposed legislation.

It is up to Republican Governor Tate Reeves to call a special legislative session that is necessary to pass a bill that would implement a new medical marijuana law in the state––something Mississippi voters approved at the ballot last year. 

But Reeves has yet to give the green light to such a session, saying Monday that there are portions of the bill written by Mississippi legislators that he simply cannot get behind.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting reported that Reeves cited one part of the proposed bill that “forbid the Department of Public Safety from having a role in the state’s potential medical marijuana industry.”

“Clearly, I wasn’t going to agree to that, so we’ve made some necessary improvements to the bill, but we haven’t gotten to the point where I am comfortable yet in ensuring that we have a program that is truly ‘medical mariuana’ that has strict rules in place,” Reeves said, as quoted by Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The outlet reported that Reeeves said he is “in talks with lawmakers about adding additional restrictions on how much marijuana someone can purchase if they do qualify for the program,” and that absent those restrictions, “the state may be closer to having a recreational marijuana industry,” something to which he is opposed. 

“If we’re going to have our true medical marijuana program with strict rules in place that ensures that those individual Mississippians who need medical marijuana can get it, but also doesn’t air on the side of opening access to any and everybody in the state, we’ve got to make some additional adjustments,” Reeves said. “And I’m hopeful that they will be able to do so.”

Reeves said the biggest disagreement between he and lawmakers deals with volume––both the amount of marijuana a patient can acquire, and the potency of the product.

“Really the one key piece left is with respect to how much marijuana can any one individual get at any one point in time and what is the THC content of that marijuana. And so, that’s really the last piece that we’re working on,” Reeves told reporters while attending an event hosted by the Mississippi Poultry Association, as reported by the website Y’all Politics.

Last year, nearly 70 percent of voters in Mississippi approved a ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana for patients with a number of qualifying conditions, including cancer, epilepsy or other seizures, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, among several others.

But the road to implementing the new law has been typified by delays and obstacles, most notably a decision by the state Supreme Court in May that ruled the initiative unconstitutional. 

Since then, Reeves and members of the state legislature have been negotiating a bill to replace the struck down initiative and still legalize medical cannabis treatment. But with the regular legislative session ending in the spring, passing the bill will necessitate a special session, which only Reeves has the authority to call.

In late September, Mississippi lawmakers reached a deal on a medical marijuana bill, which they expected would prompt the special session.

But Reeves has balked, continuing to raise concerns about the language of the bill. It is also raising concerns that the legislation will be punted to the next regular legislative session, which is scheduled to begin in January.

Last month, Reeves said he believed that he would eventually call a special session.

“I am confident we will have a special session of the Legislature if we get the specifics of a couple of items that are left outstanding,” Reeves said at the time. “Again, we have made great progress working with our legislative leaders.”

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