Workers harvest marijuana plants at the Solar Therapeutics facility in Massachusetts. Southern Sky Brand's operating officer Steve Merritt plans to model his facility in Canton to look similar. He took this photo during a recent tour. Credit: Special to Mississippi Today

The Supreme Court’s elimination of the Mississippi medical marijuana program halted millions of dollars worth of planned in-state spending and job creation, leaving many business owners with little to show for their months of investment and efforts.

Steve Merritt, the chief operating officer for Southern Sky Brands, has called off an $1 million steel order with a Mississippi company. The materials were for the grow facility he intended to start building in Canton.

GrowGeneration, one of the nation’s leading marijuana business suppliers, said it has stopped investing in its Mississippi projects. The Denver-based company had already leased property in Jackson and was considering more.

Quentin Whitwell, a healthcare executive working to create cannabis testing facilities, has an outfitted laboratory in Marshall County waiting on the go-ahead to hire employees. Now, it will continue to sit vacant. 

“Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent in anticipation of the program and hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised,” Whitwell said. “The state stands to lose one of its highest GDP producing industries because of a politically driven court decision.” 

Last week, Mississippi’s Supreme Court struck down the ballot initiative process that voters used to pass the medical marijuana program. Despite 74% of Mississippains voting to change the state constitution to include the medical marijuana program, its future is in limbo. 

“This is not only an affront to voters, but to patients and to the businesses and people who were investing in Mississippi, ready to open in Mississippi,” said Ken Newburger, the executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association. “They’re all, at worst, at a loss and, at best, a time lag.” 

The program’s supporters are pushing the Legislature to hold a special session to fix the initiative process and adopt the medical marijuana program. Gov. Tate Reeves has said he’s “a long way” from deciding whether to hold that special session. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said he thinks lawmakers could pass a new medical marijuana program in a special session.

Plenty of entrepreneurs already have several thousands of dollars of their own money tied up in preparing for the program, which was expected to begin in August. 

“Most people didn’t think this was a possibility,” Newburger said. “We believed so wholeheartedly in the democratic process.”

While most medical marijuana-related businesses in the state are now holding off on major planned expenses, many are still moving forward at least with planning. On Tuesday, the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association hosted a workshop on how to use sales software inside dispensaries. Newburger said 90 people attended. 

One of them was Cindy Ayers-Elliott, who owns and operates Foot Print Farms in west Jackson. The urban farmer’s experience lies in fruit and vegetables and ensuring fresh produce is available to her community’s food deserts.

She said she has already spent $70,000 as she researched and prepared for the cannabis program. Her research isn’t just for her own benefit, but because she wants to be able to share what she learns with smaller farmers and farmers of color. She sees the program as a way to create new wealth in the state with marijuana as a cash crop. 

“It’s a clear pathway as an economic engine to help create entrepreneurs, more business owners, more opportunities for a new caliber of training for our workforce, so we can have a livable wage in this state,” she said. “Something is wrong with the jobs we have here and we continue to repress opportunities.” 

Merritt used to work for an agricultural company that specializes in building cannabis grow rooms before he joined Southern Sky Brands, a Mississippi company that hopes to grow and distribute medical marijuana. 

He estimates he’s had his hands in the construction of about 150 marijuana growing facilities across the country. But all the planned construction for his own 70,000-square-foot facility in Canton is on pause. The construction workers who were hauling dirt have been put on hiatus. 

Marcy Croft, an attorney and founder of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association, said there are tens of millions of dollars now held up in businesses that were rearing to support the industry from construction and real estate to testing centers, waste disposal and transportation. 

“All of that promise, all of that passion, all of that money, all of that drive and all the jobs for the Supreme Court to pull the plug — it’s just devastating,” Croft said. 

GrowGeneration announced it leased a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Jackson in April. The company’s leadership said at that time it hoped Mississippi could be the gateway for medical marijuana in the South. 

The company’s president Michael Salaman now estimates the medical marijuana market in Mississippi won’t be live until 2022. GrowGeneration won’t make any further investments in the state until that market “becomes reality,” Salaman said in a statement. He also said he hopes his company is able “bring jobs and services” as it planned. 

Whitwell, who hopes to help run up to four labs in the state, said his facilities would attract scientists, technicians and workers with doctorate degrees. These are high-paying jobs — the kind that could attract, or keep, young professionals in Mississippi. Each lab would hire up to 20 workers. 

Croft, the trade association founder, said retail and grow operations have discussed starting wages of entry-level jobs of $15 per hour, more than double the federally mandated minimum wage.

Jackson farmer Ayers-Elliott’s preparation plans for the medical marijuana program have shifted. Now her focus is on organizing and educating voters on the Supreme Court’s decision to recall the ballot initiative process.

“This is not just about growing marijuana,” she said. “It’s silencing the people’s voices.”


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