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.
With medical cannabis now officially live in Mississippi, a local newspaper is spotlighting a family that brought the newly legal crop to their county––and their farm.
The Daily Leader of Brookhaven, Mississippi has the story out of Lincoln County, where local officials initially opted out of the state’s newly enshrined medical marijuana law.
Mississippi finally legalized medical cannabis treatment last year after extended legislative debate, but local governments were given the option to opt out of the program.
The decision in Lincoln County spurred a couple, Jason McDonald and Timothy Gibson, to take action. Per the Daily Leader, the two “spearheaded efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Lincoln County after the Board of Supervisors voted to initially opt out of medical marijuana,” ultimately bringing the matter to a vote in August, when voters in the county reversed the decision by local officials.
Following that vote, McDonald and Gibson “started work on opening their own Medical Marijuana Cultivation facility,” according to the Daily Leader, founding a business “called SADUJA [that] is separate from their tea farm but on the same property in East Lincoln.”
That business, per the Daily Leader, “was first licensed to grow Hemp in 2021 and as of December 22, was licensed to grow medical marijuana in Lincoln County.”
“Crime rates haven’t gone up, property values haven’t gone down like people thought,” McDonald told the Daily Leader. “We have been growing hemp since 2021. We sold hemp to local shops around Mississippi. I don’t think people have realized the cannabis plant was growing here legally well before medical marijuana passed here. It was here and it was growing on the farm.”
“I think with anything new people are generally afraid of it,’ McDonald added. “It is more of what we have done just doing it on a bigger scale and we switched over to medical cannabis instead of hemp. It is the same plant. Growing any plant is the same really.”
The medical cannabis bill was a source of intense disagreement within the Mississippi legislature, and between lawmakers and Reeves, who was adamant about imposing tight restrictions on any law that emerged.
“There is no doubt that there are individuals in our state who could do significantly better if they had access to medically prescribed doses of cannabis. There are also those who really want a recreational marijuana program that could lead to more people smoking and less people working, with all of the societal and family ills that that brings,” the governor added.
One of Reeves’ chief concerns was with the amount of cannabis a patient could obtain. The governor preferred a limit of 2.7 grams per day; the bill that landed on his desk, which was approved with a veto-proof majority, allows patients to purchase up to 3.5 grams as many as six times per week.
“I have made it clear that the bill on my desk is not the one that I would have written,” Reeves said after he signed the measure. “But it is a fact that the legislators who wrote the final version of the bill (the 45th or 46th draft) made significant improvements to get us towards accomplishing the ultimate goal.”
A few Mississippi dispensaries were ready to open to customers on Jan. 25. Mississippi Trade Association Executive Director Melvin C. Robinson stood outside one of the state’s licensed dispensaries, The Cannabis Company, to welcome customers. “It’s a very exciting day today. History has been made in Brookhaven,” Robinson said.
The first customer at Brookhaven-based The Cannabis Company was Debbie McDermott. “I do suffer from chronic pain and I have some other issues,” she said about why she became a medical cannabis cardholder. The dispensary experienced a setback due to issues with the METRC point-of-sale system, which caused a two-and-a-half-hour delay before McDermott could purchase her medicine.
The Cannabis Company co-owner Le Anne Penn told The Daily Leader that she changed her career to enter the cannabis industry. “It has been a fun journey. I have enjoyed it. The business will be different from what I was doing before,” Penn said. “I was a body technician for 40 years. I decided to pursue this because I saw the potential in the industry and the need in people. Hopefully this will help people who need it or can’t take opioids or other medicines.”
According to Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association Executive Director Ken Newburger, the launch of this program has been a long time coming. “We have been working since 2018 to get medical marijuana in the hands of patients in Mississippi, and it’s surreal to see it finally come to fruition,” said Newburger. “This is only the beginning. More and more businesses will be harvesting, testing, and getting their products on the shelves in the coming months; therefore, more patients will have access to this medicine at certified businesses all across the state.”
Medical cannabis cardholders may purchase up to 3.5 grams per day, six days a week, or a total of 3 ounces every month. Currently, the state allows patients to use medical cannabis if they suffer from one of the approved qualifying conditions. This includes a total of 20 conditions, such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, autism, and muscular dystrophy. In addition to that, six more conditions and symptoms qualify as well, including wasting syndrome, severe or intractable nausea, seizures, and severe and persistent muscle spasms, such as those experienced with multiple sclerosis.
Voters originally approved medical cannabis during the election in November 2020 with Initiative 65. In April 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court allowed opponents of medical cannabis legalization to challenge the vote results, which led to the court striking down Initiative 65 in May, stating that it was constitutionally flawed. Legislators continued to discuss medical cannabis throughout the year, and by September they made a move to re-implement a plan to legalize medical cannabis.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves stalled the progress of a new medical cannabis bill in November 2021, but he finally agreed to the details of a new law in January 2022, and signed it in February. “There is no doubt that there are individuals in our state who could do significantly better if they had access to medically prescribed doses of cannabis,” Reeves said in a press statement. “There are also those who really want a recreational marijuana program that could lead to more people smoking and less people working, with all of the societal and family ills that that brings.”
In October 2022, the state has issued provisional licenses to 491 work permits, 138 dispensaries, 47 cultivators, eight processors, four transportation businesses, three “disposal companies,” and two testing facilities.
The effort to reform the nation’s cannabis laws made new strides in 2022 with the passage of recreational marijuana legalization ballot measures in Maryland and Missouri in the November midterm elections. Success was not universal, however, as similar propositions on the ballot in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota failed to gain the approval of voters.
Looking at 2023, new milestones have already been achieved this year, with Connecticut launching regulated retail sales of adult-use cannabis on January 10, a move that was preceded by the expungement of nearly 43,000 marijuana-related convictions in the state at the dawn of the new year. And as we head further into 2023, several states across the country are likely to make new ground in the struggle to end cannabis prohibition.
A New Focus
Brian Vicente, a founding partner at the cannabis and psychedelics law firm, Vicente Sederberg LLP, says that despite spending millions of dollars on lobbying federal lawmakers in 2022, the efforts of cannabis activists were unable to result in the passage of any meaningful marijuana policy reform at the next level. With the change in the political climate in Washington, D.C., efforts this year will take a new focus.
“With Republicans taking over the House, any federal reform in the two years seems exceedingly unlikely. Fortunately, movement leaders have begun coalescing around a strategy to cut back on federal lobbying and instead push resources toward state-level reform,” Vicente said in an email. “These efforts are aiming to flip as many as 10 states to adult-use in just three years, which would not only open new markets for consumers, but also create intense pressure on Congress to pass legislation aligning federal law with the thirty-odd states where cannabis is legal for adults.”
As the new year begins, more than a half-dozen states are likely to consider legislation to reform their marijuana laws, with most activity centering in the South and Midwest regions. Outside those broad areas, Hawaii could be poised to make progress on the issue with a new governor at the helm, Democrat Josh Green, who included support for expanding the state’s current legalization of medical marijuana to include adult-use cannabis as part of his campaign for office last year. On January 11, Democratic state Rep. Jeanné Kapela announced her plans to introduce a recreational marijuana legalization bill, saying, “this year, we stand on the precipice of history.”
“We now have a roadmap for legalizing recreational cannabis in our islands,” Kapela said in a statement quoted by Marijuana Moment. “Legalizing cannabis is not just a matter of money, it is a matter of moralities.”
Snowden Stieber, a regulatory analyst with cannabis compliance technology firm Simplifya, notes that the bill has some hurdles to clear before it can get to Green’s desk, however.
“The Hawaii Senate President, Ron Kouchi, has already come out with statements expressing skepticism on any fast movement for cannabis legalization, and many elected officials are still waiting on the upcoming report from the Dual Use of Cannabis Task Force to guide their votes in the new year,” he said in an email. “While it is of course possible that the task force recommends full legalization, prior experience in other states would suggest that legislators will take their time with any report’s findings and that a sudden move toward legalization is unlikely.”
Vicente believes three states in the South—Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina—could pass legislation to legalize medical marijuana this year. With the nearby states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida already demonstrating that a regulated marijuana industry can provide jobs and tax revenue, other states in the region are likely not far behind.
South Carolina, where Rep. Nancy Mace has become one of the few Republicans in Congress advocating for cannabis policy reform at the national level, is one of the few remaining states that still hasn’t legalized marijuana in any form. But reform is popular with the state’s residents, with a Winthrop University poll conducted before last year’s midterm elections showing that more than 75% of voters support the legalization of medical cannabis. This year, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pre-filed separate medical marijuana legalization bills for the 2023 legislative session. But Simplifya regulatory analyst Justin Bedford isn’t optimistic about the fate of the legislation.
“Though these may seem like promising developments, history suggests that South Carolina still has a long way to go before any form of commercial legalization occurs,” he wrote in an email. “All 14 cannabis-related bills that were deliberated during the 2022 legislative session failed to pass, with most dying in the early stages of development. Nothing has changed in the state’s sociopolitical environment that would suggest anything will be different this year.”
In North Carolina, the state Senate passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in June 2022, but the House of Representatives declined to take up the legislation. Brian Fitzpatrick, chairman and CEO of cannabis software developer Qredible Inc, notes that public support for medical marijuana legalization is strong, and if a bill makes it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, he’s likely to sign it into law.
“A poll carried out in January 2021 by Elon University found that 73% of North Carolinians supported medical cannabis,” Fitzpatrick said in an email. “A subsequent poll in May 2022 showed that support had increased to 82% across bipartisan lines. I believe that the governor is aware of this and will fully support the legalization of a medical cannabis bill in 2023.”
In Kentucky, where an executive order from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear decriminalizing medical marijuana went into effect on New Year’s Day, a bill to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis was unveiled by lawmakers on January 7. The measure, Senate Bill 51, would legalize and regulate the “possession, cultivation, production, processing, packaging, transportation, testing, marketing, sale and use of medical cannabis and adult-use cannabis,” according to a report from the online resource Business Insurance. With Kentucky being one of the nation’s largest hemp producers, industry insiders believe the legislation has a good chance of success this year.
The Midwest and Surrounding States
Several states in the Midwest could make advancements in cannabis policy reform in 2023. In Ohio, voters could get the chance to vote on a cannabis legalization measure championed by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which was kept off the ballot for the November midterm election after legal challenges. Last week, Secretary of State Frank LaRose reintroduced the proposal, which would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older and levy a 10% tax on commercial cannabis products. If the state legislature doesn’t approve the measure within four months, the coalition can collect signatures to put the proposal before the votes in the fall. Trent Woloveck, chief commercial director of cannabis commerce platform Jushi, believes legalization efforts have an even chance of success in Ohio this year.
“It is very unlikely that the legislature acts on the initiated stature in the next four months, but reasonably likely that the Coalition will be able to gather the additional required signatures for the effort to make the ballot,” he says. “While polling would suggest a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis would pass, the Senate president and other legislators disagree. And, even if voters approved an initiated statute, the legislature would have unrestricted authority to repeal or materially revise legalization.”
Like Hawaii, Pennsylvania has a new governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who has expressed support for legalizing recreational marijuana. The issue has been stymied in years past by Republican lawmakers, but a new Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives may help the chances at success.
“While we’ve heard some interest from both sides of the aisle in previous years, conversations about legalization seem to be happening among a much larger group of legislators with increased frequency and specificity,” Woloveck says. “It also sounds like many legislators, including several previously unwilling to engage in any cannabis-related discussions, now acknowledge something has to be done about the illicit market and to stop revenue from flowing to neighboring states where people can buy legal, regulated cannabis for non-medical purposes.”
After legalizing low-potency THC edibles last year, cannabis policy experts say Minnesota could be the most likely state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2023. The state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) is now in charge of both the legislative and executive branches of government, and party leaders including Gov. Tim Walz have said that cannabis legalization will be a priority for 2023. Last Wednesday, a bill sponsored by DFL lawmakers Rep. Zack Stephenson and Sen. Lindsey Port received the approval of a legislative committee, with more hearings on the measure to come.
In Oklahoma, where 10% of adults hold cards to participate in the state’s liberal medical marijuana program, voters will decide on a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis in March. If passed, State Question 820 would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older. The measure also contains provisions to expunge past convictions for marijuana-related offenses. Proponents of the measure had hoped it would appear before voters during the November midterm elections, but a delay in certifying petition signatures and legal challenges from opponents prevented its inclusion on the ballot.
Lawmakers in other states including Georgia and Delaware could also take up measures to legalize marijuana this year, although the prospects for success in 2023 seem unlikely given the political climate in those states. But progress in cannabis policy will probably continue if the trend seen over the last decade goes on.
“Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis, we’ve seen an average of two states per year pass adult-use laws,” Vicente notes. “I predict that 2023 will continue this trend with both Oklahoma and Minnesota looking very likely to legalize.”
Mississippi’s fledgling medical cannabis program is slowly but surely coming together, with state officials targeting early next year for the opening of the first dispensaries.
Local news station WLBT reports that “900 Mississippians have already applied and been certified for their medical marijuana cards,” and that there is hope for the first dispensaries to open their doors early next year.
Mississippi legalized a medical cannabis program earlier this year after the state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, signed a bill into law.
“The ‘medical marijuana bill’ has consumed an enormous amount of space on the front pages of the legacy media outlets across Mississippi over the last three-plus years,” Reeves said in a statement following the bill signing. “There is no doubt that there are individuals in our state who could do significantly better if they had access to medically prescribed doses of cannabis. There are also those who really want a recreational marijuana program that could lead to more people smoking and less people working, with all of the societal and family ills that that brings.”
The governor’s signature marked the culmination of a multi-year legislative process after voters in the state approved a ballot measure in 2020 to legalize medical marijuana treatment there.
The state Supreme Court struck down the voter-approved measure, deeming it unconstitutional on a technicality, prompting lawmakers in Mississippi to draft their own medical cannabis proposal.
Reeves, who was opposed to the 2020 ballot measure, engaged with the legislature on the bill, at one point insisting that lawmakers impose a limit for patients to receive 2.7 grams per day.
The legislation that arrived on his desk earlier this year, however, allowed patients to purchase up to 3.5 grams as many as six times per week. It passed the legislature with a veto-proof majority.
“I have made it clear that the bill on my desk is not the one that I would have written,” Reeves said in his statement at the time. “But it is a fact that the legislators who wrote the final version of the bill (the 45th or 46th draft) made significant improvements to get us towards accomplishing the ultimate goal.”
The governor did, however, applaud a number of provisions in the new law.
“1. Reduces the total amount that any one individual can receive to 3 oz. per month. This one change will reduce the total amount by 40 percent from the original version (I asked for 50 percent). Said differently, there will be hundreds of millions of fewer joints on the streets because of this improvement,” Reeves said at the time. “2. The medical professional can only prescribe within the scope of his/her practice. And they have to have a relationship with the patient. And it requires an in-person visit by the patient to the medical professional. 3. Only an MD or DO can prescribe for kids under 18 and only with the consent of a parent/legal guardian. 4. An MD or DO must prescribe for young adults between the ages of 18-25. 5. The MSDH will promulgate rules regarding packaging and advertising, and I have confidence they will do so in a way that limits the impact on our young people. 6. Prohibits any incentives for the Industry from the Mississippi Development Authority. 7. Protects our churches and schools from having a marijuana dispensary within fewer than 1,000 feet of their location.”
Reeves thanked the lawmakers for their efforts, and expressed hope that “we can put this issue behind us and move on to other pressing matters facing our state.”
Mississippi medical marijuana regulators announced that the largest cannabis grower licensed by the state so far was directed to destroy thousands of plants worth approximately $1 million for failure to follow regulations. The company, Mockingbird Cannabis LLC, was also ordered to halt some operations and make improvements to one of its cultivation sites, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.
Voters in Mississippi legalized medical marijuana in the state in 2020 with the passage of Initiative Measure 65, although regulated sales of medicinal cannabis are not expected to begin until early next year, according to an update from state officials issued on Thursday.
In early October, an article and photographs published by Mississippi Today reported on a Mockingbird facility cultivating cannabis plants in a manner contrary to state regulations. Mockingbird had reportedly been growing plants in hoop houses at a site 12 miles from its main facility. The company had failed to enter the plants at the site into the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system and did not maintain the required security standards. A Mockingbird official said that about 20,000 plants had been growing at the facility.
In response, the health department issued a letter to the company listing corrective actions it should take but declined to answer questions about the situation. Competing medical cannabis cultivators protested, arguing that Mockingbird was permitted to grow medical marijuana without complying with regulations, giving the company a competitive advantage as the regulated market prepares to launch. Competing cultivators had reportedly been told that growing operations must be limited to one site and could not take place in greenhouses.
MississippiRegulators Issue Sanctions
On Thursday, Kris Jones Adcock, the director of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Program, announced that further action had been taken against Mockingbird by state regulators.
“There is an order in place where they have some halt on operations and some impact on their operations and some capital improvements they have to do to satisfy that corrective action,” Adcock said at a press conference on Thursday. “They also had to destroy a number of plants in their inventory … I don’t know the exact number, there was upwards of $1 million of inventory destroyed — right at about 5,000 plants.”
Mockingbird co-founder Marcy Croft declined to answer questions about the department’s actions on Thursday, but sent a written statement to Mississippi Today pledging to “continue to fully cooperate with the Mississippi Department of Health, our fellow growers, dispensaries owners and healthcare providers to ensure a robust and effective market in our state.”
Although 47 cultivators have already been licensed to grow medicinal cannabis in Mississippi, the health department has reported that the medical marijuana program is in a provisional phase, with a staff of only three and no investigators yet hired. Despite the apparent lack of oversight, State Health Officer Dr. Dan Edney said on Thursday that he is reasonably sure significant amounts of marijuana are not being diverted to the illicit market and that preventing diversion is the department’s top priority. Officials said they expect to have nine more staffers hired by the end of November and to contract with private companies to help with compliance.
“We are doing that to the best of our ability,” Edney said. “We are not going to be able to get that to zero, but we are doing as best we can under the regulatory authority given to us … and as we are bringing on more staff next month it will be easier.”
Cannabis Coming to Dispensaries by Next Year
State regulators gave an update on the progress of rolling out Mississippi’s medical marijuana program, which was approved by voters nearly two years ago with the passage of Initiated Measure 65. Officials said that while progress on the rollout of the program is being made, dispensary sales of medical marijuana are not expected to begin until early 2023.
“It will be the end of the year or sometime early next year before product is tested and available,” Adcock said, according to a report from the Clarion-Ledger.
As of October 27, state regulators had approved medical marijuana licenses for 406 patients, 117 practitioners, 138 dispensaries, 47 cultivators, eight processors, three disposal companies and two testing labs, as well as 491 work permits. All of the approved businesses have been issued provisional licenses, which are valid for 120 days and allow state regulators to monitor the businesses before issuing a long-term license.
“I think we have enough practitioners now to take care of the patients that are currently certified, but we will be recruiting more,” Edney said. “We’re seeing increases every day in the number of practitioners that are interested in the program, and we’re seeing increases every day in the number of patients interested in the program.”
Edney added that the health department has done “yeoman’s work” in creating a new program in a short amount of time, noting that the “key tenets” of the program will be ensuring public safety and reducing “any opportunity of diversion that we possibly can.”
“Make no mistake the agency has been regulating this industry from day one and will continue to do so as we go forward,” Edney said.
Voters in five states will see recreational marijuana legalization proposals on their ballots for the November midterm elections, giving the cannabis community a chance to gain new ground in the movement to free the plant.
Activists in Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota have successfully led campaigns to put an adult-use cannabis legalization initiative on the ballot in their states, while lawmakers in Maryland have turned to the voters for guidance with a referendum to legalize recreational marijuana. As the November election nears, the campaigns for reform are busy rallying the voters for support. And with the number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana approaching half the country, each new jurisdiction brings the country one step closer to comprehensive reform.
Brooke Butler, vice president of partnership at cannabis compliance tech company Simplifya, told Cannabis Now that in addition to giving voters a chance to weigh in on cannabis reform in their own states, the ballot measures in this year’s election can help inform policy and spur progress in other jurisdictions and at the national level.
“As we head into midterms, we’re going to see a number of cannabis ballot initiatives take center stage,” Butler said. “Ballot initiatives are one of the truest forms of democracy in action and a great barometer of where America stands on key issues. When it comes to cannabis, historically, Americans have said yes in overwhelming numbers.”
In Arkansas, voters will see Issue 4, a proposed initiative to amend the state’s constitution, on their ballots. If passed, the measure from Responsible Growth Arkansas would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and permit licensed dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana. Taxes raised on sales on adult-use cannabis would be used to fund hospitals and healthcare research, law enforcement and drug courts, which focus on reducing repeat offenses and substance abuse among nonviolent offenders with substance misuse disorders.
Polling by Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College released last month showed that Arkansas’ legalization proposal was supported by 59% of likely voters, with just 29% opposed and 13% undecided. Brian Vicente, founding partner of the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg, said that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Arkansas would be a significant victory for the cannabis reform community. But provisions of the measure that favor the state’s existing medical marijuana industry have left segments of the movement unsatisfied with the legislation.
“A win for legalization in Arkansas would be seen as a major win for legalization advocates due to the fact that the current Governor Asa Hutchinson is a rabid prohibitionist who served as a chief architect of the nation’s Drug War when he was the head of the DEA,” Vicente noted. “However, this measure is the most controversial of the five ballot initiatives, since it provides a major benefit to the relatively small number of current medical marijuana business owners and only allows a very narrow path for new business entrants.”
Voters in Maryland will decide on Question 4, a referendum that would amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana for adults 21 years of age or older beginning in July 2023. The measure also directs the state legislature to pass laws for the use, distribution, regulation and taxation of marijuana. Currently, marijuana is legal for medicinal use in Maryland under a 2013 law, while possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis was decriminalized in 2014. Question 4 is overwhelmingly supported by Maryland voters, with a poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland showing 73% in favor of the proposal.
In July, California firm The Parent Company, home of Jay-Z’s Monogram brand, announced that it would be entering Maryland’s medical marijuana market through a partnership with Curio Wellness. TPCO CEO Troy Datcher said that if Question 4 succeeds, the company will be well-positioned to grow with the state’s newly legal market for adult-use cannabis. As might be expected, Datcher told Cannabis Now in an email that “TPCO is in favor of passage of Question 4.”
“Cannabis criminalization in Maryland has been a major public policy failure and has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of communities of color,” said Datcher. “It is critical that the state take a new direction, particularly as many of its neighboring states begin adopting adult-use programs. In addition, legalizing cannabis in Maryland would stimulate the state’s economy and create tens of thousands of new jobs for locals.”
Midterm election ballots in Missouri will include Amendment 3, which would change the state constitution to legalize the possession, use, sale and delivery of marijuana for personal use and sets a 6% tax on commercial cannabis sales. The proposal, advanced by Legal Missouri 2022, also includes provisions for the expungement of certain marijuana-related convictions. Polling on Amendment 3 is mixed, with a survey commissioned by the Missouri Scout in early September finding only 43% of respondents in support of Amendment 3, compared to 47% against and 10% undecided. However, a SurveyUSA poll conducted only days later found that 62% of voters were “certain to vote yes” on Amendment 3.
Mark Toigo, CEO of Organic Remedies Missouri (ORMO), said that his company supports the ballot measure, noting that polling has shown that a significant majority of the state’s residents support legalizing adult-use cannabis. But the state legislature has failed to act in accordance with the will of the people. Noting that the initiative campaign collected more than 400,000 signatures from supporters, Toigo believes the whole state will benefit if the measure is approved.
“If the ballot question receives a majority vote it will transform the Missouri cannabis industry into one of the strongest in the country. With existing infrastructure, a well-trained workforce, and some of the best brands in cannabis already established in the Missouri Medical Marijuana program, Missouri will be positioned to no longer lose its tax revenue to states like Illinois and Oklahoma,” Toigo explained in an email. “Legal Mo 22 ensures sustained job creation, economic development and revenue flow to Missouri, while also righting the wrongs of cannabis’ past prohibition and providing ample opportunities for those most harmed by the failed war on drugs.”
Statutory Measure 2 in North Dakota would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and permit the home cultivation of up to three cannabis plants. Retail sales of marijuana would be permitted by the measure, although the initiative includes a cap of 18 dispensaries and seven production facilities. The measure also requires the state Department of Health and Human Services to enact regulations governing commercial cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and sales by October 1, 2023. Although statewide polling data is not available, a poll of southwestern North Dakota residents in July found that only 39% supported the marijuana legalization initiative from New Approach North Dakota, while 43% were opposed and 18% were indifferent. A similar effort in 2018 failed at the polls, with 59% voting against the measure and 41% in favor. But the campaign manager for both efforts, David Owen, believes this year might be different.
Voters in neighboring South Dakota will also have the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana in November. If they vote in favor of the measure, it wouldn’t be the first time. A 2020 ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis passed with 54% of the vote, but a legal challenge supported by Gov. Kristi Noem led to the state Supreme Court invalidating the measure on procedural grounds. The vote on this year’s proposal, Initiated Measure 27, could be closer than two years ago, with the results uncertain as election day approaches. A South Dakota State University poll released on October 14 showed that 45% were in favor of the legalization bid and 47% against, with 8% undecided.
If Measure 27 prevails on election day, possession and use of cannabis and marijuana paraphernalia will be legalized. Adults 21 and older would be permitted to possess or distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Those living in a jurisdiction without a licensed marijuana retailer would be allowed to grow up to three cannabis plants in a secure location. Attorney Vicente says legalization in the Dakotas could put additional pressure on lawmakers in Congress to finally achieve national marijuana reform.
“Despite their small populations (both Dakotas have more cows than people), legalization votes in these states could move the needle in a profound way at the federal level,” Vicente wrote in an email. “Upon their states’ voting to legalize, the four U.S. Senators representing the Dakotas would be faced with an important decision—do they continue to vote to uphold federal prohibition and criminalize their own constituents, or do they join the growing number of voices in the Senate who are looking to legalize.”
How Will Legalization Efforts Fare in 2022?
With just weeks to go before the midterm elections on November 8, pollsters and pundits are closely watching the marijuana legalization proposals in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. Beyond their intended effect on each state’s respective cannabis policy, the ballot measures could also affect other races on those ballots. Ellen Mellody, vice president at cannabis public relations firm Mattio Communications and a former spokesperson for the Obama-Biden campaigns, said that the marijuana legalization measures on the ballot this year are likely to spur turnout among prospective voters who support cannabis legalization efforts. Additionally, she noted that President Joseph Biden’s recent announcement that he would pardon federal convictions for marijuana possession, which she termed a “brilliant move” that is “likely to pay out dividends,” could also boost turnout and encourage voters to support Democratic candidates and bolster efforts to legalize cannabis at the federal level.
“These ballot initiatives will absolutely swing results in certain states and districts, and the pollsters are finally catching on. At the federal level, it’s unlikely the timing of Biden’s announcement last week was an accident,” Mellody wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “Even in red states Arkansas, Missouri and South Dakota, you’re seeing numbers come in at over 50 percent. It’s no wonder why more electeds at the federal level are hopping on the legalization bus. At a minimum, the results of these initiatives should solidify that the dam is breaking.”
With polling showing that at least three of the cannabis policy reform measures on the ballot are likely to succeed, it’s becoming clear that this year’s election will make new strides in the efforts to end the prohibition of marijuana in the United States. A clean sweep similar to 2020, when voters in all five states deciding on cannabis legalization measures approved the efforts, would be a significant victory for the movement. Datcher of TPCO said that if cannabis policy reform measures post a strong showing next month, it would reenergize efforts to pass comprehensive national marijuana legalization.
“If all five measures pass, the number of states that have legalized adult-use cannabis will increase from 19 to 24, nearly half of the states in the country,” he said. “We are thus getting increasingly close to a ‘tipping point’ where we will hopefully see meaningful movement at the federal level.”
But even if all five states are added to the recreational marijuana fold, activists warn the progress won’t necessarily be the end of story in those states. In addition to South Dakota’s invalidation of the successful 2020 measure, the Mississippi Supreme Court also struck down a medical marijuana legalization initiative that passed the same year. And Paul Armentano, the deputy director National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, noted that several of this year’s ballot measures faced opposition and efforts to keep them off the ballot. The tactic worked in Oklahoma, where voters will have to wait until 2024 to decide on State Question 820. In September, the state Supreme Court ruled that the recreational marijuana legalization measure would not appear on the November ballot, despite the campaign’s adherence to the state’s regulatory guidance and deadlines.
“With public support for marijuana policy reform reaching super-majority status in recent years, prohibitionists and other political opponents have largely abandoned efforts to try and influence public opinion,” Armentano said in a statement from the agency. “Rather, they are now relying on anti-democratic gamesmanship to prevent voters from weighing in on the issue.”
On November 9, the day after this year’s midterm elections, the cannabis community is sure to have new wins to celebrate. But the parties should be tempered with a realization that the job is not yet done. More than half the states in the nation will still have bans on adult-use cannabis, and prohibitionists will regroup to stand their ground, dwindling as it is. To maintain progress once the ballots are counted, the cannabis community must celebrate the victories, assess the failures and stay vigilant for the fight ahead.
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.”
Via the state’s Department of Health, the following conditions may qualify a patient for participation in the program: cancer; Parkinson’s disease; Huntington’s disease; muscular dystrophy; 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; sickle-cell anemia; Alzheimer’s disease; agitation of dementia; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); autism; pain refractory to appropriate opioid management; diabetic/peripheral neuropathy; and spinal cord disease or severe injury.
In addition, a patient may qualify if they have “a chronic terminal or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following”: cachexia or wasting syndrome; chronic pain; severe or intractable nausea; seizures; and severe and persistent muscle spasms including, but not limited to, those characteristic of multiple sclerosis.
The law is the result of a 2020 ballot initiative that was approved by Mississippi voters, but that vote proved to be only a prelude to what has been a messy road to implementation. Last year, the state’s Supreme Court struck down the ballot initiative, saying it violated the state’s constitution.
That set the stage for Mississippi lawmakers to write their own medical cannabis program.
In late January, after more than a year of disagreements on the finer details of the law, members of the state Senate and House of Representatives finally produced a compromise bill that was sent to the desk of GOP Gov. Tate Reeves.
Throughout the process, Reeves had expressed his preference that purchasing limits for medical cannabis patients be set to 2.7 grams a day. The bill approved by lawmakers in January, however, allows patients to purchase as many as 3.5 grams up to six days a week.
“The ‘medical marijuana bill’ has consumed an enormous amount of space on the front pages of the legacy media outlets across Mississippi over the last three-plus years,” Reeves said in a statement after signing the measure.
“There is no doubt that there are individuals in our state who could do significantly better if they had access to medically prescribed doses of cannabis. There are also those who really want a recreational marijuana program that could lead to more people smoking and less people working, with all of the societal and family ills that that brings,” he continued.
Reeves added that he had “made it clear that the bill on my desk is not the one that I would have written.”
“But it is a fact that the legislators who wrote the final version of the bill (the 45th or 46th draft) made significant improvements to get us towards accomplishing the ultimate goal,” the governor said.
Reeves did, however, note certain aspects of the bill of which he did approve, including a rule that a “medical professional can only prescribe within the scope of his/her practice,” that the physician must “have to have a relationship with the patient,” and that a prescription requires “an in-person visit by the patient to the medical professional.”
“I thank all of the legislators for their efforts on these improvements and all of their hard work. I am most grateful to all of you: Mississippians who made your voice heard,” Reeves said at the time. “Now, hopefully, we can put this issue behind us and move on to other pressing matters facing our state.”
This past February, Mississippi became the 37th state in the US to legalize medical marijuana, following the passage of legislation permitting patients with qualifying health-related conditions to use cannabis medicinally. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill, the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act, after threatening to veto the legislation if lawmakers didn’t relent to the changes he demanded.
The Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act, also known as Senate Bill 2095, allows patients with “debilitating” medical conditions including cancer, HIV/AIDS, autism and sickle cell disease to register with the state’s medical marijuana program with a recommendation from a qualifying health care provider. Registered patients with an identification card issued by the state health department will be permitted to purchase up to 3.5 grams of cannabis per day from licensed dispensaries up to six times per week, although it will likely be months before regulated retailers begin serving patients.
In a Feb. 2 Facebook post, Reeves announced that he still had reservations with the legislation. “I have made it clear that the bill on my desk is not the one that I would have written,” he wrote. “But it is a fact that the legislators who wrote the final version of the bill (the 45th or 46th draft) made significant improvements to get us towards accomplishing the ultimate goal.”
Mississippi Voters Approved Medical Marijuana In 2020
Reeves’ reluctant approval of Senate Bill 2095 is the culmination of a legislative and litigious saga to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi. In November 2020, the state’s voters approved Initiative 65, a ballot measure to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis. But only days before the election, opponents sued to block the measure, citing flaws in the state’s initiative process. In May 2021, Initiative 65 was struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court in a decision that invalidated the state’s initiative process.
Prompted into action by the 68% of Mississippi voters who approved the legalization of medical marijuana in the 2020 general election, state lawmakers then set themselves to the task. In September 2021, negotiators with the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives announced that they had reached an agreement on a medical cannabis plan with significant differences compared to Initiative 65, including provisions that would allow local jurisdictions to regulate where medical marijuana could be cultivated, processed and sold. In December, Reeves threatened to veto the proposal if lawmakers failed to make changes to the legislation to satisfy his objections. After making amendments to the bill, both houses of the Mississippi legislature approved the legislation with a veto-proof majority the following month.
“The ‘medical marijuana bill’ has consumed an enormous amount of space on the front pages of the legacy media outlets across Mississippi over the last three plus years,” Reeves continued in his social media post. “There is no doubt that there are individuals in our state who could do significantly better if they had access to medically prescribed doses of cannabis. There are also those who really want a recreational marijuana program that could lead to more people smoking and less people working, with all of the societal and family ills that that brings.”
In his statement, Reeves noted the changes in the legislation that he considers improvements to the bill, including an amendment that reduces the amount of cannabis a patient can purchase under the program to three ounces per month, a cut of about 40% from the ballot measure approved by voters. Other changes to the bill mentioned by the governor include provisions that prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools and churches and another that bars the Mississippi Development Authority from offering financial incentives to the cannabis industry.
“Marijuana access is long overdue for Mississippi’s patients,” NORML state policies manager Jax James said in a statement from the group. “The overwhelming majority of voters decided in favor of this policy change over a year ago, and for the past 14 months, the will of the people has been denied.”
However, James went on to express reservations about some provisions of the legislation, including a 5% excise tax in addition to the 7% sales tax levied on medical marijuana purchases.
“We remain concerned that lawmakers saw fit to add unnecessary taxes on cannabis products, that patients are prohibited from home-cultivating limited amounts of cannabis for their own personal use and that those with chronic pain are restricted from accessing cannabis products until first using more dangerous and addictive substances like opioids,” she said.