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A new bill to legalize medical marijuana was introduced in Mississippi on Tuesday and is expected to be considered by a Senate committee as early as Wednesday afternoon. A medical cannabis program could be up and running by the end of the year if the long-awaited legislation becomes law this session.

Bill’s path to adoption, however, is precarious. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has previously threatened to veto the measure over his proposed buying limits, which he says are too high, and some other state officials remain wary. But supportive lawmakers said they were confident they would have the necessary votes to override any veto and push through the legislation.

Medical marijuana remains a controversial topic in Mississippi despite the decisive approval by voters of a broad legalization initiative in November 2020. The state Supreme Court overturned the measure on procedural grounds last May, simultaneously removing the entire state initiative process, and lawmakers have spent the last several months navigating what comes next.

The new bill, SB 2095, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R), draws heavily on provisions negotiated by lawmakers in the second half of last year, as legislative leaders prepared a bill for a early extraordinary session that the governor never called. This would allow patients with about two dozen specific medical conditions to qualify for medical marijuana on the recommendation of a doctor, with other conditions being added later by regulators. State-issued registration cards are said to cost $ 25, although some patients may benefit from a lower price.

The proposed eligibility conditions include cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis, Alzheimer’s disease, sickle cell anemia, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, neuropathy, spinal cord disease or serious injury as well as chronic disease conditions or treatments that produce severe nausea, cachexia or melting, seizures, severe muscle spasms or persistent or chronic pain.

Registered patients would be subject to purchase limits that would restrict them to no more than one “medical cannabis equivalency unit” per day, which the bill defines as 3.5 grams of cannabis flower, 1 gram of concentrate or up to 100 milligrams of infused THC. some products. While these limits are significantly lower than in most states where cannabis is legal for medical patients, Reeves said the program is only expected to allow half of those amounts.

Patients or caregivers would be prohibited from growing their own cannabis under the proposal. Products from state-licensed companies, meanwhile, are said to be limited to 30% THC for cannabis flowers and 60% for concentrates.

Smoking and vaping cannabis would remain illegal in public and in motor vehicles, and patients would still be prohibited from driving under the influence.

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Legalization advocates say the 445-page bill represents middle ground between the more permissive plan approved by nearly three-quarters of state voters in 2020 and a much narrower approach preferred by the governor and some legislators.

Kevin Caldwell, Southeast legislative director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the measure represents a step forward from the status quo despite some weaknesses, such as the requirement that doctors take extra class hours. on cannabis and a provision he says will encourage patients with chronic pain to use opioids rather than medical cannabis.

“We commend Senator Blackwell for sponsoring this legislation which seeks to uphold the mandate of voters,” he said in an email. “We are disappointed that SB 2095 includes onerous restrictions on physicians and pushes pain patients to opiates, but we recognize the challenge of overcoming a hostile legislature and governor.”

The legislation would task the Mississippi Department of Health with overseeing the new industry, with help from the State Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture and Commerce. It would also establish a nine-member advisory committee to advise on issues such as patient access and industry safety.

Licensing of cannabis businesses other than dispensaries would begin 120 days after the bill is passed, with the first licenses issued approximately a month after that. The dispensary licensing process would start 150 days after its adoption, with the first licenses arriving a month later. This would mean that the program could be operational, at least in a limited form, by the end of this year.

The bill as presented would not place any number caps on licensed businesses, although cities and other communities may impose zoning and other restrictions. Businesses may also need to obtain approval from local authorities to operate.

In general, local governments could not outright ban medical cannabis companies or “make them impractical to operate,” the bill says, although another provision specifies that local governments could opt out of the program altogether in the future. 90 days after the bill is passed. In such cases, however, citizens could then present a petition to put the matter to a vote.

The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare, Hob Bryan (D), told the Clarion Ledger that he intends to take the action in his panel as early as Wednesday afternoon. If approved there, it would go through the Senate, and then potentially through the House.

For much of the past year, it emerged lawmakers were set to pass a medical marijuana bill in a special legislative session, but the governor ultimately decided not to pass a medical marijuana bill. not convene the special session after reaching an impasse with lawmakers. Lawmakers who supported legalization said at the time that responsibility for the failure lay with Reeves.

“We’ve been working long hours on this,” Rep. Lee Yancey (R) said in October. “We are ready to have a special session. We have the voices to pass it. An overwhelming number in the House and Senate are ready to pass this, and we have a majority of people in Mississippi who voted for us to pass this.

“If there is a further delay, it will be on the shoulders of the governor rather than the legislature.”

Later that month, Reeves dodged questions from patient advocates about why he hadn’t called the special session.

At the end of December, as this year’s regular session approached, he said on social media that he had “repeatedly told members of the Legislative Assembly that I am ready to sign a bill that is really medical marijuana, “but stressed that there should be” restrictions. “

“There remains one point in question which is VERY important: how much marijuana an individual can get in any given day,” he wrote, doing calculations on the back of the envelope to claim that the system would lead to “1.2 billion legal joints.

While Reeves has said he will consider defeating the possession limits bill, Senator Brice Wiggins (R), chairman of Division A of the Judiciary Committee, said it would not surprise him if the legislature supplanted the governor if he chose to veto the bill.

“I would hate Governor Reeves to be canceled because, like I said, I’ve worked with him on a lot of different things,” Wiggins said late last month. “But the reality is that Initiative 65 was passed with almost 70% of the vote. And the legislature has spent all summer working on it and listening to the people. “

Blackwell, the bill’s sponsor and lead author, attempted to point out the buying limits to the governor last week, when he brought hemp to Reeves’ office to give an idea of ​​the amounts allowed under the bill. of law. “I took samples to show him what an ounce looks like, what 3.5 grams actually looks like,” the senator said.

In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Blackwell called the meeting cordial, but acknowledged that there was little willingness to compromise on key issues. “I thought it went well. [The governor] was receptive, enjoying the meeting. Hopefully we’ve pulled the bar a bit closer to a deal, ”Blackwell said. “He wasn’t engaged, so they’re going to think about what we said and come back with us.”

A poll released in June found that a majority of Mississippi voters supported legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, with 63% saying they wanted the legislature to pass a bill which reflects the measure of the ballot that was overturned by the Supreme Court.

“Patients who suffer daily have already seen their willpower overturned by one technical detail,” Caldwell told the Marijuana Policy Project. “If the legislature does not pass SB 2095, it is simply pushing patients into the illicit market.”

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer

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