Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee members discuss the issue of medical marijuana during a committee hearing at the State Capitol Monday. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi lawmakers pondering a medical marijuana program heard on Monday from colleagues from two ends of the spectrum: Utah, which strictly regulates medical marijuana, and Oklahoma, whose program is so open it resembles recreational marijuana use.

“This begins to look a lot like de facto recreational use,” Mississippi Senate Public Health Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, told Oklahoma state Rep. Scott Fetgatter, who spoke with Bryan’s committee via Zoom. Fetgatter told lawmakers his state has issued about 400,000 medical marijuana use cards and issued about 10,000 business licenses for dispensaries, cultivators, processors and testing labs. Oklahoma has about 2,000 dispensaries, allows smoking of medical marijuana and allows patients to grow a small number of plants in their homes.

“That is a fair statement,” Fetgatter said. “We’d be better off at this point if we had an adult use (recreational) program along with medical marijuana … Ten percent of our population currently has a medical marijuana card … and two to three people are using each one of those cards … I had no idea there were so many ill people in Oklahoma … A large amount of the population in Oklahoma is using medical marijuana.”

By contrast, Utah has only about 23,000 people with medical marijuana use cards — about 1% of its population — 42 dispensaries that operate more like pharmacies and a “cap” of only eight growers licensed. The state does not allow smoking of medical marijuana or home growing and it charges a hefty fee — $100,000 for a dispensary license, which limits who can enter the market.

Utah state Sen. Evan Vickers, also appearing via Zoom, said there had been some issues with growers, particularly those in large “vertically integrated” companies that grow, process and dispense, not wanting to sell to some dispensaries and other “disruptions” in supplying medical marijuana to patients.

Mississippi lawmakers are trying to reach consensus on a medical marijuana program after the state Supreme Court shot down one overwhelmingly passed by voters last year with ballot Initiative 65. The state Supreme Court ruled last month that the medical marijuana initiative and the entire ballot initiative process is invalid. Legislative leaders and Gov. Tate Reeves have discussed the possibility of a special session to consider both the reinstatement of the medical marijuana program and entire initiative process where citizens can gather signatures to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.

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Many medical marijuana advocates and Initiative 65 supporters say they don’t want the state to overregulate a program to the point patients can’t get cannabis, or where only big marijuana corporations could participate.

“I think they need to find a happy medium between Utah and Oklahoma type programs and do what’s in the best interest for patients in Mississippi,” said Angie Calhoun, chairwoman of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association and mother of a son who suffered debilitating seizures, inability to eat and other problems that were untreatable with pharmaceuticals but helped by medical marijuana. “We don’t want them to overregulate, and we don’t want to see $100,000 license fees like in Utah.”

Both Vickers and Fetgatter offered Mississippi lawmakers some advice from their hard-learned experiences in Utah and Oklahoma.

“If it’s medicine, then treat it like medicine,” Vickers said. “We require cannabis pharmacies, where they have some expertise, not cannabis dispensaries where someone’s main expertise is that they’ve gotten high before… The vertically integrated companies are more efficient, where they own all three: the cultivation, the processing and the pharmacy. You just don’t want them to own the lab.”

Fetgatter recommended any state creating a program have a “stand alone” agency overseeing medical marijuana.

Fetgatter also said: “We have an issue with the criminal element moving into our state, legally growing, but then trafficking the marijuana outside our state … Make sure you protect your agricultural and rural land from foreign investors. They will trash your rural areas with large grow operations if you let them.”

Reeves, who as governor has sole authority to call a special session, said he would do so only if Senate and House leaders are on the same page with a medical marijuana program and other issues.

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, who has led the push to pass a medical marijuana program in the Legislature, on Monday said he believes such a consensus could be reached soon.

“I told the governor a couple of weeks ago we should have something by mid-July, an agreement between the House and Senate,” Blackwell said. “By August I believe we could have a special session.”

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, sat in on the morning part of the day-long hearing on Monday. He wouldn’t speculate on a special session.

“You’ll have to check with the governor,” Hosemann said. “The governor is who calls special sessions.”

The Senate Public Health Committee at its Monday hearing also heard from:

  • Karmen Hanson, with the National Conference of State Legislatures. She showed lawmakers the patchwork of laws, regulations, taxes and fees across the 36 states plus Washington, D.C. and three territories that have regulated comprehensive medical marijuana programs. She said most states require a doctor have a “bona fide medical relationship” with a patient before approving medical marijuana use. She said that typically states provide “the floor, not the ceiling,” with regulations and allow local governments to develop their own regulations, and many allow opt-in or opt-out provisions for localities.
  • Dr. Jennifer Bryan, chair of the Mississippi State Medical Association Board and Dr. Scott Hambleton, an addiction specialist and director of the Mississippi Physicians Health Program. Bryan reiterated the MSMA’s opposition to Initiative 65 and both doctors warned lawmakers that research on the efficacy of medical marijuana is very limited, it has severe detrimental effects on users and it is not the panacea that advocates make it out to be. Bryan said: “We are not Utah and we are not Oklahoma. We’ve already got some sick folks around here that we’re trying to get taken care of … Marijuana is not a medicine. It is a product that should be researched.”
  • Amy Smoot, a patient advocate from DeSoto County. Smoot, a former emergency medical technician, spoke on behalf of three families with young children with terrible illnesses that traditional pharmaceuticals couldn’t treat and caused severe side effects. “Today I’m requesting that you legalize their medication,” Smoot said. Of one young patient named Miles, she told lawmakers, “I’m begging you today, please help Miles. Senators, you all are Miles’ last chance. Please do not let him down.”
  • Mark Cash, owner of Green Guys CBD dispensaries in Saltillo and Starkville who was hoping to transition into medical marijuana before Initiative 65 was overturned by the court. Cash said he’s seen people benefitting from use of CBD, and believes medical marijuana would be even more effective for many patients.

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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.