Mississippi Today political reporters Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender discuss medical marijuana with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, who has been leading the negotiations with Rep. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, in hopes of reaching a compromise between the two legislative chambers on the issue.

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Read a transcript of the episode below.

Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. I’m your host, Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. From breaking news to political strategy to interviews with candidates and elected officials, we’ll bring you facts, perspectives and context that helps you cut through the noise and understand all sides of the story.

Bobby Harrison: I’m Bobby Harrison, political reporter for Mississippi Today, and I’m here with my colleague Geoff Pender, another political reporter. And Geoff’s coming off the heels of being in endless tax hearings for the past few days. But now we’re going to talk about medical marijuana and maybe some other issues with state Senator Kevin Blackwell. Senator Blackwell represents DeSoto County. I think he’s in his second term. He’s a Medicaid committee chairman, but some way he has taken on the mantle of being sort of the Senate go-to guy on medical marijuana. So that’s primarily what we’re going to talk to him about today. So Senator Blackwell, thanks for being here.

Kevin Blackwell: Thank you for having me. 

Geoff Pender: Good talking with you again, Senator Blackwell. I guess first off, I’ll ask the question that you’ve probably heard a million times this summer. It appears to be the question of the summer. Where are the Senate and the House as far as working out a deal on medical marijuana?

Kevin Blackwell: Well, I kind of get tired of saying this, but we’re getting very close. And I’m sure the folks who are out there who are wanting to use these products for medical needs and certainly for the kids with some of their seizure disorders frustrating for them. But we are working every day on this trying to advance to get to the point where we can present something to the governor. 

Geoff Pender: Sure. I know you, you and your House counterpart had both at times expressed hope that there could even be a special session called, which the governor would have to do, but that that could be accomplished in August.

We’re here at the end of August. I guess that’s perhaps been pushed back a little bit, but do you still think we’re in special session territory? Are we getting so close to the regular that it might should wait? 

Kevin Blackwell: No, I think we can still get this done. We’re a couple of weeks off of my schedule where I’d hoped we would be but actually Representative Yancey and I met yesterday. We actually did a tour of University of Mississippi’s cannabis program and talked to some of their folks over there. But then later on that day, I did have an opportunity to talk to the governor to kind of let him know where we were in the process and that we’re getting extremely close and, you know, we’d have something soon to him for his office to review.

I think it’s still very possible here in the early parts of September to get something done, 

Bobby Harrison: Senator Blackwell for sorta just a person not familiar with the legislative process, they might be saying, “What the heck? Medical marijuana passed by overwhelming margin, and all the leadership in the House and Senate, the governor say they’re in favor of a medical marijuana law.”

 So they say, “What’s the hold up?” But I mean, there’s a lot of details other than just saying we’re going to approve medical marijuana. Can you just kind of speak to that? 

Kevin Blackwell: Sure. There’s a lot of issues with this. Now, when 65 had passed, there wasn’t a lot of really substance, and the initiative left a lot of the rule making and regulations to the department of health.

And I think they did an excellent job of coming up with some initial rules and regs. So what we’re trying to do is go through, and I think the bill that we’re presenting is going to be better than 65. And so there’s a lot of little issues that you have to address. And as we go through the process— and Bobby, I know both you and Geoff follow the legislative process.

So you start off with the bill today and the way it ends up is totally different at the end. And at times there’s language that starts off getting moved, gets added back, gets removed again. And it’s just part of that ugly sausage lawmaking process we go through. 

Geoff Pender: Senator, one thing I wanted to ask you about, it’s kind of as we speak today on Friday, this is kind of breaking news. Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson has sent a letter I think to the AG’s office and copied lawmakers essentially saying that, you know, he sees that marijuana be it medical or it’s still a schedule drug under federal law, still illegal under federal law. And essentially he just doesn’t see how his office could participate in overseeing growers or licensing or whatnot.

Is that a potential problem or are you guys still perhaps looking to department of ag for some oversight, or is that something that we’re considering at this point? 

Kevin Blackwell: I have not had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the commissioner about his concerns, but as it is now we have three state agencies overseeing the program, and that would be the department of ag, department of health and department of revenue. And each of those agencies we’ve assigned some different sets of responsibilities. And for instance, the department of ag would oversee the cultivators and the processors, transporters and any disposal entities. And I think responsibilities fall within the line of what the department of ag does.

This is an agricultural product even though we’re going to be using it for medicinal purposes. And so that’s on the cultivator’s side. And then on the processor side, they’re taking that product and making food products out of it, whether it be liquid or solid foods. And again, I think that falls under some of the responsibilities of the department of ag. 

Bobby Harrison: So not to put you on the spot, Senator Blackwell, but it may come down to an issue of whether Commissioner Gipson wants to violate federal law or state law. 

Kevin Blackwell: You know I’m not an attorney. I’ll leave that to the attorneys to haggle out, but it hasn’t seemed to be a problem in other states that have utilized their department of ag for a role in their processes. 

Geoff Pender: Let me ask you. I know you and Representative Yancey had been a little bit hesitant of giving too many specifics of where you stand on legislation, but some of the broad strokes that have been talked about in the past come to mind whether to allow smoking of marijuana, whether to allow people to grow a limited number of plants in their homes if they’re certified for a medical condition. 

Have you worked out those things? Are there any of those details you could give at this point? 

Kevin Blackwell: Well, I’ve said before, we have talked about those those issues. They’re not dead at the present time, but, you know, we’re still negotiating back and forth, kind of how both chambers feel about those positions.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. And just for background, y’all are doing this sort of intense negotiation because the governor and I think mostly everybody in the legislative process agrees that y’all don’t want to call a special session. Y’all want a special session to deal with this, but you want to have pretty much a consensus reached before you go into that special session.

And that still doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be changed in the special session, but that’s kind of where y’all are. I mean the other issues are taxes, I mean, it’s just a litany of issues that y’all have. 

Kevin Blackwell: Yes, sir. They certainly are. And that’s what kind of has drug this process out. Since Representative Yancey has been working with me, I think we’ve made great strides.

He’s been excellent to work with. He has made a number of suggestions, which I think is gonna make the bill better. And you know, it’s just a process that we have to go through. And certainly we’ve talked about taxes, we’ve talked about smoke, we talked about home grow. We’ve talked about, you know, THC levels.

We talked about possession amounts. So there there’s a whole number of issues that we’re trying to consider. 

Geoff Pender: Sure. Y’all on the Senate side, you held some pretty informative hearings over the summer. And one thing I found pretty fascinating was y’all communicated with some folks from other states that have been there and done this.

What were some of the big takeaways you got from that? From talking with folks in Utah or Oklahoma or other places? 

Kevin Blackwell: Well, it’s been an educational process. This isn’t just like throwing out a bill, and I think you mentioned this earlier and saying, “Hey, we’ve got medical cannabis.”

There are a lot of considerations that we need to take into place. And so one of the things we’ve done is to go in and take a look at what other states have done. I think there’ve been 38 states that have passed, and I think maybe four territories that have passed medical marijuana. So, what we’re trying to do is go in and take a look and pick kind of the best from each state.

I have spoken a number of times with Senator Vickers from Utah. He is the one that kind of drafted their bill. They have some very strict guidelines and I think we’re looking to be a little looser, but looser than them, looser than Alabama, but not as wild as Oklahoma.

Geoff Pender: Yeah. The Oklahoma folks y’all talked with that was pretty interesting, some of the issues they’re seeing there. 

Kevin Blackwell: That’s right. And so what we’re trying to do is get through and learn from some of these other states that, you know, were ahead of us, some by a decade or more, and just trying to make sure. You know, I think Senator Vickers and I think the representative from Oklahoma said this, “We’re going to be tweaking this every year from now on.” Science is going to change.

i think social attitude’s going to change. So we’re always going to be tweaking this bill or this cannabis bill in some form or fashion, I think for legislatures to come. 

Bobby Harrison: Senator Blackwell, if you can’t answer this or don’t feel comfortable answering this right now, I understand, but I get paid to ask questions so let me ask this. I noticed a story out of The Daily Journal in Tupelo. Senator McMahan, one of your colleagues up there talked about potentially a 7% sales tax and a 10% excise tax. But, I mean, I think there was some other stuff to come out after that.

I mean, that’s not really what y’all are looking at right now in terms of taxes. Can you speak to that? Or if you don’t want to just tell me to shut up. 

Kevin Blackwell: Since I don’t get paid to answer questions, we’re looking at a regular sales tax and we’re having discussions about if there’s going to be any excise tax. And at the current time, it would not be in that 10% range. It would be less. 

Geoff Pender: Sure, sure. I’m just curious .I know you talk with a lot of your colleagues and the leadership, and I don’t know if you know where it stands on the House side, but just on the Senate side do you foresee this being relatively easy to get people on board with and agree to, or is this something that even in a special session is going to be what they call a knock down drag out trying to agree on all this? How difficult is it going to be to get folks together? 

Kevin Blackwell: Well, if you go back to our regular session, you know, I passed some form of medical cannabis bill three times. You know, we’re subject to the two-thirds vote on it. So you know, voting was tight back then. Part of the reason voting was tight was because of the Initiative 65, and proponents were fighting us. And really all our bill did was to provide some sort of insurance policy in the event that the Supreme Court did strike down 65 it’d be a program in place. As we know, the bill died over in the House, subsequently the Supreme Court overruled Initiative 65. So we have no program, and so that’s why we’re trying to kind of expedite something, if you would, to get it in place. So going to your question about the difficulty, I think there’s going to be a little bit of challenge, but I think for the most part the members of the Senate are going to try to fulfill the needs of the people, the voters. And I think there will certainly be discussion, but I believe we’ll pass the bill with a little greater margin and skin of our teeth like we did the last three times.

Geoff Pender: Sure Senator, one thing I’ve appreciated, I’ve heard you say a couple of times I think this is true that we hear a lot from the business advocates of the politics, you name it, but at the heart of this are some very sick people, some patients that need some relief. You guys getting input from them? I know maybe it’s hard to hear through all the noise on this, but are they still there at the focus of what y’all are working on? 

Kevin Blackwell: Absolutely. That’s my main focus is for the patients, and in particular the children. Some of these kids with these seizures that they have, I mean, it just breaks your heart.

 I’ve seen some pictures. Actually I thought one child was abused at school or something. And he had black eyes and, no, that was just from him falling down on the ground with the darn seizure. The parents of these children have reached out to me. A number of the We are The 74 reached out as well as people that supported Initiative 65.

And while a handful have been inappropriate on social media, the other handful has been courteous and have reached out to me. I’ve met with them. I think they understand that I am trying to work on their needs. And you know, we’ve used input from some of these folks into the bill, in fact, some of their suggestions. So that still remains my focus as far as trying to get something done for these these patients. 

Bobby Harrison: Senator Blackwell, along those lines, you’re a businessman in DeSoto County. You’re a Medicaid committee chair. How did you become sort of the point person on medical marijuana in the Senate?

Kevin Blackwell: Well, it kind of goes back. Back in 2017 I had constituents, couple of constituents, come to me, and one of the gentlemen had recently lost his wife to cancer. And about that time, Arkansas I think they were passing their bill for medical cannabis. And he wanted to see if would I mind sponsoring the bill, and I did in 2018 and it got no traction got no interest.

So I didn’t bother refiling the bill. So it’s been something that I’ve supported. You know, philosophically, I’ve been in healthcare all my life and certainly want to make sure there’s different alternatives for folks. And so in this case, I know there’s going to be some stereotypes that people have with people who use cannabis, but it is a medicinal product.

And there’s a lot of patients who can get relief from it, so just us pushing this forward I believe we’re going to get there this fall. But I guess more to your question, when we had the, I guess, the COVID response and the initiative process was moving forward, we thought we’d try to get something in place.

But at that time, so this is in 2020, and but we were limited, even though we had an extended session, to what we could take up. It had to just be COVID related. And although I did find articles that suggested that medical cannabis helped alleviate some symptoms of COVID, such as anxiety and stress, this wasn’t enough for us to bring that bill forward in 2020. So when we rolled around after the election in November, a number of us had concerns— I’m one of them— about putting a product such as cannabis in our constitution. I mean, once it goes in, you can’t fix it unless you have another referendum.

Bobby Harrison: Opposed to just regular law. 

Kevin Blackwell: Yeah, that’s correct. So, you know, there was a lawsuit filed, so it was basically 50/50. So we decided in January to go ahead and try to put something out just in case the Supreme Court did strike it down, which ultimately they did, but unfortunately we didn’t have a bill there to put in place, which brings us back full circle to today in our discussion. 

Bobby Harrison: And real quick just to kind of wrap things up, you talked about the narrow margin you passed the bill in the Senate during the 2021 session. But at that time because of legislative rules, you were having to get a two-thirds vote, but this coming, whether it’s special session or an upcoming session, it’d just be a majority vote to pass medical marijuana and put it in general law.

Am I correct about that? 

Kevin Blackwell: No, sir, because of the tax. 

Bobby Harrison: Oh, it’s three-fifths vote. That’s right. 

Kevin Blackwell: Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s three-fifths not two-thirds. 

Bobby Harrison: So it’d still be a little bit easier as far as vote margin. 

Well, we still need I think about 30 if all 52 members are there, and we don’t.We’ve had two resignations or one retirement and one resignation, so that puts us down to 50.

I think I need about 30 to pass it. 

Geoff Pender: Sure. Well certainly we hope to keep in touch with you and please keep us posted. Like I said, this has been the I guess you’d say the question of the summer, perhaps when we might see see this move forward, but we really appreciate you talking with us and giving us an update and hopefully we’ll talk with you soon again about it.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Thank you, Senator Blackwell.

Kevin Blackwell: Well, and if I can add on, upon passage of this bill we have some requirements that the department of health start issuing licenses or cards, certifying providers as well as patients. And then within 60 days you know, we expect to start issuing licenses to the cultivators, processors and dispensaries. So we’ve got some timelines on here to move this forward as rapidly as feasibly possible. 

Bobby Harrison: Senator Blackwell, we appreciate it. We really appreciate you doing this. 

Geoff Pender: Yes, sir. Thank you.

Kevin Blackwell: Thank you.

Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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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.

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.