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Mississippi's Medical Marijuana Law Struck Down Before It Can Take Effect [FEATURE]

Mississippians want medical marijuana. They said so at the polls last November when 74% of them voted for Amendment 65, the medical marijuana initiative that had jumped through all the procedural hoops to make it onto the ballot. They also said they wanted that specific language, rejecting a watered-down Alternate Amendment 65A sponsored by the Republican-dominated state legislature in a bid to seize control over the issue.

Mississippi Supreme Court (mississippi.org)
But before the voters had spoken, long-time Republican Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed suit to have the initiative thrown out on what can fairly be described as a technicality. And last Friday, the state Supreme Court, consisting of five justices appointed by Republican governors and four selected in nonpartisan elections, agreed, overturning the clear will of the voters because the legislature has failed to act for two decades on a constitutional housecleaning issue.

Under a provision of the state constitution added in the 1990s, Section 273, initiative campaigns are required to get one-fifth of signatures from each of five congressional districts, which seems straightforward enough. The only problem is that since congressional reapportionment after the 2000 census, the state only has four districts, making it impossible for any initiative to comply with the constitutional language.

Since 2000, the state has seen numerous initiatives, with many, including a 2011 voter ID initiative, becoming state law. None of them have been thrown out because of the conflict between the Section 273 language and reality. Until now.

In its 6-3 decision in Butler v. Watson (Watson being the secretary of state), the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the state's loss of a congressional seat renders the Section 273 language "unworkable and inoperable on its face," and instead pronounced itself bound to find Amendment 65 "insufficient" because it cannot meet the five district requirement. And it pointed a finger back at the legislature:

"Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress," the court held. "To work in today's reality, it will need amending -- something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court."

The decision is not going over well, and not only with medical marijuana advocates, but also in the state legislature, where this week calls arose among lawmakers for a special session to deal with medical marijuana and with the constitutional initiative problem.

"The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi," Ken Newburger, executive director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said in a statement. "Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people's constitutional right. It's a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn't matter."

"The Supreme Court's decision effectively told the people of Mississippi: 'You have no voice, no vehicle for voter initiative, y'all's power is over,'" said Diesoul Blankenship of Mississippians for Medical Marijuana. "It's nothing short of erroneous and illegal."

"228,000 Mississippians signed petitions to put medical marijuana on the ballot last year, and an overwhelming majority of the state voted to approve it in November," said Angie Calhoun, Board Member of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association. "In addition to silencing the votes of three-fourths of the state, today the Supreme Court squashed the hope of thousands of patients like my son, who will now not be able to find relief through medical marijuana. As a mother of a patient, I am heartbroken and outraged that this was allowed to happen."

National supporters of Amendment 65 chimed in, too.

In a statement last Friday, Marijuana Policy Project deputy director Matthew Schweich called it a "cruel and tragic day" for Mississippi patients and described the court decision as "deeply flawed."

"As a result, tens of thousands of Mississippians with debilitating health conditions will be denied safe, legal access to something that can alleviate their pain and improve their quality of life. Instead, they will once again be treated as criminals under the law, Schweich said. "To add insult to injury, this decision not only nullifies the will of hundreds of thousands of voters, it also effectively eliminates Mississippians' right to bring forward ballot initiatives to amend their state's constitution. The legislature must take action to fix the ballot initiative requirements and honor the will of their constituents by enacting Amendment 65 into law through the legislative process."

"Our hearts are broken for the patients in Mississippi who need access to medical cannabis, as well as their families who will continue to watch their loved ones needlessly suffer. We stand with them. The fight for a compassionate medical cannabis law in Mississippi will continue."

There are growing bipartisan calls for a special session to rectify the situation.

Republican House Speaker Phillip Gunn said Monday he is open to the special session. "If the legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people," the Republican representative said in a statement.

Democratic state Rep. John Hines told said Tuesday the court's decision against the electorate was shocking and Reeves needed to act. "The governor's in the driver's seat when we're out of session," he said. "It's his prerogative to call a session or not call a session."

A poll released Tuesday could add to the mounting pressure on the governor. It found 60% of respondents disapproved of the Supreme Court ruling and wanted Reeves to call a special session.

Reeves, though, is so far noncommittal. In remarks Tuesday, he said: "The people have spoken. They made their voice heard and voted overwhelmingly to have a (medical marijuana) program and Mississippi should have that."

But when asked directly about calling a special session, his response was: "We are a long way from being able to make that decision."

And the people of Mississippi wait, thwarted.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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