Mississippi voters approved Initiative 65, a citizen-sponsored proposal that legalizes medical marijuana.

Many state leaders argued the initiative was too broad and would approve marijuana with few restrictions. Voters rejected that argument on Tuesday, according to a declaration of victory by the initiative’s campaign. Unofficial vote counts tallied by the Associated Press show a wide margin of support from Mississippians.

While allowing medical use of marijuana has, according to polling, been popular with Mississippi voters, Tuesday’s vote was complicated and divisive.

A group of Mississippians, led in part by state Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, utilized the state’s ballot initiative process to put the question — Initiative 65 — on a statewide ballot. That process, completed in 2019, required about 100,000 petition signatures from Mississippians across the state.

But after years of balking at the issue at the Capitol, lawmakers opted earlier this year to place an alternative, Initiative 65-A, to the citizen-sponsored medical marijuana initiative, on the ballot.

This set up a ballot that required voters to first vote yes or no on whether they wanted either initiative to pass, then to pick one of the two. Another stipulation is that the winning proposal also must receive votes equaling 40% of the total votes cast in the election. Initiative 65 passed both those thresholds Tuesday.

One major debate was whether to put legalized medical marijuana into the state Constitution, as opposed to setting up a program in state law with legislative oversight. Both Initiative 65 and the alternative would amend the Constitution. Opponents of Initiative 65 argued that adopting it would prohibit elected leaders from regulating or improving the program.

Opponents also said Initiative 65 would leave Mississippi awash in pot and that it lacks thorough regulations or the ability to change or add them. Proponents said the legislative alternative Initiative 65A was so restrictive that it would effectively prevent sick Mississippians from being able to use a treatment helping millions of people in other states.

The city of Madison, led by Mayor Mary Hawkins, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s initiative process, and the lawsuit could place Tuesday’s election results in jeopardy. The lawsuit centers on the issue that the Constitution mandates that the signatures be gathered equally from the five congressional districts as they were drawn in 1990, In 2000, the state lost a congressional district, but the Legislature has not changed the language in the initiative law to require the signatures to be gathered from the four districts.

The Supreme Court opted not to rule on the case until after the election.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.