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.

All that stands between Mississippians and the chance to vote on the legalization of medical marijuana next year is around 30,000 petition signatures.

The group behind the Medical Marijuana 2020 ballot initiative, Mississippians for Compassionate Care, has been gathering signatures since September of 2018. Organizers say more than 57,000 of the required 86,185 signatures have been certified by state circuit clerks, but the clock is ticking as their Sept. 6 deadline approaches. Currently, over 100 people are deployed across the state gathering signatures, organizers say.

The group faces an uphill battle because getting a measure on a ballot in Mississippi is no easy task. Only six have successfully gone to a vote and just two of those, eminent domain and voter ID requirements, were voted into state law.

Last week, around 32 people gathered in the lobby of the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson for a public forum about the initiative. Jeff Jones, a native of Carthage and the clinical liaison for special projects at the Mississippi Department of Health, said he thinks this initiative’s focus on relieving suffering sets it part from previous efforts to legalize marijuana in the state.

“If we were trying to approve recreational marijuana, I’m not sure that would fly,” Jones said.

Jamie Grantham, the communications director for the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign, shares a similar sentiment. The Raymond native said she decided to get involved with the campaign after a long period of prayer and after doing her own research on the plant’s medicinal benefits.

“OK if this helps people and God made the plant and gave us a directive to ‘subdue the earth and have dominion over it,’ which means we need to act responsibly with what we’ve been given to steward … I wanted to be a part of Mississippi having that,” Grantham said.

If the measure makes it onto the ballot and is passed, the health department would regulate how medical marijuana is grown, processed, and made available to patients. A total of 22 debilitating medical conditions are covered under the initiative. After being certified by a Mississippi physician, any patient suffering from one or more of those conditions would be able to receive a medical marijuana identification card from the health department. The card would cost no more than $50 and allow the patient to purchase medical marijuana from a state licensed and regulated treatment center.

Jones said between 72 percent and 86 percent of Mississippians across all demographics support medical legalization. The level of support the measure has received from conservatives has surprised many.

Jones said he supports the measure in part because of what he has learned from data collected by the health department related to his work on the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Opioid Task Force.

“What we’ve found that works with those that are addicted to opioids is a minimum 12 month program with lifelong follow up is the only thing that works. With medical marijuana you don’t have that issue, you can stop tomorrow and not have withdrawal symptoms,” Jones said.

Some studies have found that medical marijuana could be used as an alternative to opioids to fight pain. However, new research calls those findings into question.

The level of regulation is part of the appeal for Jones as well.

The Mississippi State Board of Health, made up of 11 members appointed by the governor, is against the initiative, arguing there is a lack of evidence that marijuana has medicinal benefits. But the health department is preparing for the measure in case it does pass.

In that scenario, Jones said that he would be the director of the medical marijuana program, adding that his perspective as both a small business owner and a pharmacist would bring a “common sense approach” to the program.

“If my name is associated with it, I want it to be the best in the country. I want the nation to look at us and say ‘Mississippi got this right,'” Jones said.

Supporters say studying the programs of the 33 other states that have legalized medical marijuana has informed the plan being developed for Mississippi. There will be no cap on the number of legal businesses that can open in the state. In some instances, having that cap has resulted in lawsuits by citizens seeking to open their own business or by patients who say they’re left with no choice but to travel long distances to the nearest treatment center.

Jones has also said he will strive to keep startup costs as low as possible to avoid situations seen in states like California, where it is difficult for legal operations to compete with the already existing black market.

An area of concern that is not being addressed, however, is access for those convicted for nonviolent marijuana offenses. That’s a major issue for Aylen Micardo, who attended last week’s forum.

“I was disappointed that wasn’t included because when I think about public health I think about every aspect of someone’s life. Someone who is incarcerated is not going to have those same opportunities and access to the public health industry if they have that record,” Mercado said.

Mercado also expressed frustration over the fact that medical marijuana prescriptions would come with a complete out of pocket cost. This is because the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance makes it illegal for insurance companies to cover it.

“That leaves out working class and poor people who need this kind of treatment,” Mercado said.

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, Jeff Jones, clinical liaison for special projects at the Mississippi Department of Health, cited internal health department polling about public support for medical marijuana legalization. After publication, a health department spokeswoman told Mississippi Today the agency has not conducted polling on the issue. 

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.