A protester at the We are the 74 Rally held outside the Supreme Court building Tuesday in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The narrative has developed that 74% of the people who went to the polls in November supported medical marijuana legalization. But in reality, the convoluted process enacted by legislators used to place an alternative to a citizen-sponsored initiative on the ballot makes it difficult to gauge the precise level of support for medical marijuana.

Still, that narrative led to the creation of the “We are the 74” group and Facebook page referencing the 74% of voters who presumably voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. “We are the 74” is the rallying cry of a large number of people who want the Legislature to approve medical marijuana — sooner rather than later — after the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative approved overwhelmingly by voters.

It is inaccurate to say that 74% of people who went to the polls in November favored the legalization of medical marijuana. It would be true to say that the November vote indicates a strong majority favored medical marijuana legalization.

Granted, in the grand scheme, it makes little difference whether medical marijuana support at the polls in November was at 65%, 75% or some other overwhelming number. Still, it is important to provide accurate information and the context of that support.

The 74% is the percentage of people who voted for the citizen-sponsored Initiative 65, which legalized medical marijuana, compared to the 26% who voted for the legislative alternative. Both legalized medical marijuana, though the legislative alternative did so with many more restrictions than did the citizen-sponsored initiative. But based on that outcome, 100% of voters supported legalizing medical marijuana in some manner.
But to argue that 100% of people voted in favor of medical marijuana also would be a false narrative.

What is important to remember is that Mississippians are faced with two questions when the Legislature opts to place on the ballot an alternative — competing proposal — to a citizen-sponsored initiative. Some argue that the Legislature intentionally developed the convoluted, two-question process to enact a citizen-sponsored initiative to make it more difficult to pass any proposal opposed by the Legislature.

Under that convoluted process, the first question gives voters two options: to support either the citizen-sponsored initiative or the legislative alternative, while the second option is to oppose both.

If opposition to both receives more votes than the support for either the citizen-sponsored initiative or the legislative alternative, then that is the ballgame. Both are defeated. But this past November, 816,107 (68.5%) voted in favor of the citizen-sponsored initiative or the legislative alternative, while 374,931 (31.5%) voted against both, according to official results from the Mississippi Secretary of State.

Perhaps it could be argued, based on the first question, that almost 69% favored the legalization of medical marijuana, not 74%. But it could be argued that number is not correct either. After all, there theoretically could have been voters who opposed both the citizen-sponsored initiative and the legislative alternative, but supported the concept of medical marijuana. If that was the case, and if they took the question literally, they would have voted no on the first question.

And incidentally, to further complicate a complicated process, people who vote against both on the first question can still vote for either the legislative alternative or the citizen-sponsored initiative on the second question.

Of course, this all came up after the Supreme Court in late May in a landmark and controversial 6-3 decision struck down the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November and while doing so struck down the entire initiative process. The court ruled the initiative process invalid because language in the Constitution requires signatures to place an issue on the ballot be gathered equally from five congressional districts. The problem, the Court ruled, is that the state has had only four districts since the 2000 Census.

Supporters of medical marijuana, upset with the court ruling, rallied around the “We are the 74” mantra. There is nothing wrong with that. It makes the point that a large percentage of Mississippians support the legalization of medical marijuana and are now asking the Legislature to enact what was taken away from them by the Supreme Court.

It might be 74% who support medical marijuana. It might be a little less. It might be a little more.

It is just hard to ascertain from the November election. Perhaps it would be a public service if legislators would simplify a convoluted ballot process as they work in the coming months to revive the initiative process struck down by the Supreme Court.

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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.