Medical marijuana campaign puts conservative backers in a ‘strange position’

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Steven Senne, Associated Press

Michael Dundas, CEO of Sira Naturals, Inc., stands for a photograph among cannabis plants, Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility, in Milford, Mass.

What stands out most on the website for Medical Marijuana 2020, a proposed ballot initiative, are the names of its backers.

Totaling 58 people, these include four Republican lawmakers, the president of Mississippi Christian Living magazine and the heads of two of the most influential conservative advocacy groups in the state. All of them support a new campaign, announced this week, that would put the question of whether to legalize medical marijuana on the 2020 statewide ballot.

Many of the same folks, it seems, who make Mississippi a red state could make it a green one.

If it seems surprising that Mississippi conservatives would publicly endorse a cause that many associate with the far left, those who’ve lent their names to the campaign say it shouldn’t.

“I think it’s an example of liberty and freedom. From an ideological standpoint, I’m not a big proponent of, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, the government telling me what should go in my mouth any more than what should come out of my mouth,” said Jon Pritchett, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.

Mississippi already grows marijuana for the federal government at an Ole Miss lab. Nor is it the first state where conservatives have come out in favor of medical marijuana. At their state convention last month, Texas Republicans voted for the first time to make medical marijuana a plank in their platform, the Texas Tribune reported, although this was still a step far short desired by Texas Democrats, who voted for full legalization on their party’s platform.

Also last month, Oklahomans, who elected Donald Trump in 2016 by 65 percent — the second-highest margin in the country — voted to legalize medical cannabis. One of the most surprising but ardent sectors of support in that state was evangelical Christians.

“I think Christians get a lot of bad raps,” said Marilyn Tinnin, president of Mississippi Christian Living magazine and one of the 58 members of the campaign’s steering committee. “People think we’re haters and we’re against things. That’s not true at all. I think there’s black and white in the world, but I think there’s lots of gray. I think this is one of those gray areas that has a lot of potential to alleviate pain and do something really good for people in the state who are suffering.”

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The story of Ashley Durval and her daughter, Grace Harper, who has epilepsy, has been widely cited as a reason to loosen restrictions on some marijuana byproducts that can alleviate symptoms of certain medical conditions. Durval recently launched a campaign to ask Mississippians to legalize medical marijuana.

The question of suffering is an important one for many Mississippians — and one the new Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign takes pains to address. The initiative was registered by Ashley Durval, the mother of Harper Grace Durval, and her group Citizens for Compassionate Care. In 2014, the Legislature passed Harper Grace’s Law, removing cannabidiol oil, which is derived from cannabis but does not come with the psychotropic effects of marijuana, from the list of controlled substances in the state.

Harper Grace, who has a rare form of epilepsy, was 2 when the law passed. She’s now six, but her mother has said state regulations have kept her daughter from getting the oil meant to treat her condition.

This amendment, if passed, would loosen those restrictions.

“Practically we’re talking about medical marijuana here, we’re not talking about recreational drug use. It really seems like kind of a no-brainer to me, but because the word marijuana freaks people out, people who would normally be for these freedoms but have seen the negative impacts from drug problems, can’t disassociate those two,” Pritchett said.

In 2015, the last time Mississippians tried to get a vote on legalizing marijuana, some people did freak out, according to that campaign’s lead organizer. Getting an initiative on a Mississippi ballot requires collecting the signatures of 100,000 registered voters in the state — 20,000 from each congressional district, including one that has long been dissolved. That initiative’s author, Kelly Jacobs, said she and other campaign workers faced resistance from officials in dozens of communities. She said her campaign struggled to collect enough signatures, and county clerks ultimately rejected many of the ones they did collect.

“I don’t see anyway Mississippi is going to have a successful ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana because the hurdles that we face today are the same ones we’re going to face tomorrow,” Jacobs said. “This is a conservative state. It’s not easy to find 100,000 people willing to say they’re okay with (medical marijuana).”

Collecting the signatures required to get a measure on a Mississippi ballot is a daunting task. Since voter initiatives were approved as a way to amend the state constitution in the 1990s, only six have successfully gone to a vote. And just two of those, eminent domain and voter ID requirements, actually made it into state law.

But the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign differs from the last campaign in a number of ways. For starters, this one calls for medical marijuana instead of blanket legalization. The proposed amendment, submitted to the Secretary of State’s office, proposes a tightly regulated system for legalizing medical marijuana only within a narrow set of circumstances and for certain medical conditions.

Those circumstances require the Board of Medical Licensure to oversee doctors prescribing medical marijuana. The state Department of Health would oversee and regulate the entire process, from issuing medical marijuana cards to patients to monitoring the treatment centers where patients would obtain the drugs.

Mississippi State Department of Health spokeswoman said if the ballot measure is successful, the agency, “will comply with this constitutional measure to the best of its ability.”

For many of the supporters, the high degree of regulation is what separates this from past proposals.

Mississippi House

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison

“I think that Joel Bomgar and others have done their due diligence to regulate it properly— and I hate that word regulate, but I mean it in a really positive sense. Teenagers won’t be able to walk into a clinic and just walk out with a prescription like in some other states,” said Tinnin of Mississippi Christian Living.

Like Pritchett and other conservatives who spoke to Mississippi Today, Tinnin’s support for medical marijuana comes in part from her belief that the government shouldn’t regulate the doctor-patient relationship. But the high degree of regulation is also what makes this proposed amendment so appealing.

Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, said he supports legalizing medical marijuana but wrestles with reconciling his views on promoting individual liberty with reducing government regulation.

“I have struggled with this issue both politically and personally because there is this idea that we’re creating some more government here in order to (pass) this, and that really bothers me. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this with some of the others on the steering committee because I have tried to consistently vote against anything that creates more government,” Criswell said.

“But there’s such a negative connotation with marijuana that this is the only way I think this can happen… So I’m accepting some government control although it keeps me awake at night.”

In addition to stressing regulation, Bomgar says attaching the names of prominent people to the campaign signals to other potential supporters that it’s safe to support legalizing medical marijuana.

“It’s incredibly valuable for the public to see that prominent leaders in our state have signed up publicly on the steering committee. Medical marijuana is something whose time has come,” Bomgar said. “It adds legitimacy to the campaign, but it also makes it clear where this campaign is headed with this tightly controlled, tightly regulated approach.”

Gov. Phil Bryant, in a Facebook posts, has already opposed the measure, saying: “I will be voting ‘no’ if this makes it on the ballot. With all the pharmaceutical advancements we have seen, it would seem strange to bring pot into the equation.”

Organizers still have two years to convince detractors like Gov. Bryant to join with 30 states and District of Columbia where medical marijuana is now legal. Although the majority of them are blue states located along the coasts, voters in nine of them supported Donald Trump in 2016.

No public polling data is available on Mississippians’ medical marijuana views. But in Texas, where, as in Mississippi, Republicans control state government, a recent Texas Tribune poll found that 84 percent of all registered voters in the state supported either blanket legalization of marijuana or legalization for medical purposes.

Mississippi House

Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch

Nationally, 93 percent of all voters and 86 percent of Republicans support legalization of medical marijuana, a Quinnipiac University poll from April 2018 found.

But the Republican-led federal government may be out of step with the states that support it. Since taking office last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed the loosening of some restrictions the Obama Administration loosened on both recreational cannabis and medical cannabis.

“Our federal government should be led by the states, and here is a case where the states are leading the charge, which is going to force the federal government to change,” Criswell said.

“It’s the right dilemma we’re having and we should be having this question. But yeah, it is a strange position that we’re in.”