Lawmakers met for the second time as they evaluate the possibility of medical and even a recreational marijuana program in Mississippi.
Last week’s second hearing by state Senate Health and Welfare Committee on medical marijuana showed that there is plenty of real estate between those who are against any sort of program, supporters of a very limited program and those who want a more liberalized, free-market system or even a recreational one. It was the second of two hearings by the committee, which held the first on June 3. Lawmakers are trying to fill the void left by Initiative 65, which was passed by 56 percent of the state's voters and was struck down by the state Supreme Court along with the state's entire ballot initiative process over a technicality on congressional districts.
The options presented could include:
A strictly limited medical program like Utah or Alabama which doesn't allow smokeable cannabis, strict limits on the psychoative substance THC in cannabis products and only a limited number of retailers and patients allowed to utilize the system. While there likely wouldn't be a three-tier system like with alcohol distribution (where the three tiers of production, distribution and sales are kept independent by law), the number of permits for dispensaries would be capped.
Utah state Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told the committee that he wanted to keep Utah's program on the medical professional side after visiting surrounding states such as Colorado and Nevada with more liberal programs.
“You know in some of the dispensaries, some of the people helping patients were not experts in any way, shape or form,” Vickers said. “They were in some cases literally just bud tenders whose only expertise was they got high the night before so we really had a concern that we wanted to keep it in the medical professional route throughout the process.”
According to data from the Utah Department of Health, there was $29.9 million in cannabis sales revenues between March 2, 2020 and February 28, with $3.9 million in sales in the month of February.
Data on Alabama's program is unavailable since it was just passed in the Yellowhammer State's most recent legislative session
There are 23,089 card holders in Utah, which is in contrast to Oklahoma's more liberal system, which has 365,000 card holders and even allows home growing of up to six plants.
A more wide-open system that while ostensibly medical, ends up becoming a largely recreational system, according to Oklahoma state Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, who testified to the committee. Fetgatter has been the legislative leader in Oklahoma on the medical marijuana.
“Ten percent of our population currently has a medical marijuana card,” Fetgatter said. “I didn't realize we had so many ill people in our state.” He also said the state should go ahead with an adult use program to go along with a medical program, taxing each accordingly.
One of the problems for Oklahoma was that lawmakers had 60 days after the passage of the ballot question to get the program running, which Fettgatter says is a pay-to-play system. Fetgatter warned Mississippi lawmakers about allowing large grow operations to take root in the state and ship to states where marijuana is still illegal.
Medical marijuana has been a money-making industry for Oklahoma ($831 million in sales in 2020 after bringing in $345 million in 2019) and a generator of taxes, with $42 million collected by the state in taxes after only $6.8 million was collected in 2019.
A program with both recreational and medical limits, like the program pioneered by Colorado, could be enacted in Mississippi, but it is highly unlikely. Like Oklahoma's more liberal medical program, such a dual system would have tax benefits for the state.
So far in 2021, Colorado has accrued $180.7 million in marijuana revenues (both state taxes and fees) after a record-setting $387 million in 2020.
Medical marijuana was approved by Colorado voters in 2000 in a ballot initiative and recreational sales were allowed in 2014 after a 2012 ballot initiative.
State Sen. Bryce Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, is a former prosecutor who has talked about the possibility of a recreational program after listening to the testimony of medical professionals uncomfortable with prescribing all but a couple of U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabinoid medications.
The Department of Health has already drafted administrative rules for Initiative 65 and there is the belief that these regulations could form the framework of a medical marijuana program in the state.
There are 18 states that have regulated cannabis for adult use and 36 with medical programs, with Arizona, Montana and New Jersey passing via the ballot initiative process this year and lawmakers doing so in New York, Connecticut, New Mexico and Virginia. Like Mississippi, South Dakota's initiative was torpedoed by the courts, but the decision by a circuit judge is being appealed.
Only three states lack a program — Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska — and a potential ballot initiative was killed by the state Supreme Court for containing more than one question.
A bill that would've created a program died in the unicameral legislature there in May, setting up another ballot initiative that enjoys widespread support in statewide polls.