"Both my wife and I had health issues. Using marijuana helped us tremendously, it's what inspired us to open our business," Santita Delaney of Pearl, owner of Hemp World, said on May 25, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The storyline of the summer has been that House and Senate negotiators are close, closer — even very, very close — to having a deal on a medical marijuana program, for which Gov. Tate Reeves could call the Legislature into special session to pass.

But as summer slips toward fall, those mostly closed-door negotiations continue with scant details on the particulars or hang-ups, and… still no deal nor special session.

As the clock ticks, prospects for a special session before the January regular legislative session become less likely. And passage of a medical marijuana program during a busy regular session is far more politically arduous, perhaps even doubtful. Even current negotiations become endangered as time drags on — more chefs get in the kitchen, deals on particulars fall apart, the center cannot hold.

It would appear it’s time for lawmakers and Gov. Tate Reeves to fish or cut bait, as the saying goes, on a medical marijuana program to replace the one passed by voters but shot down by the state Supreme Court.

If negotiators are truly close on broad strokes, Reeves could call them in and let them get to haggling — if, as he and legislative leaders have said, they desire to uphold the will of the voters on this issue. Reeves could take a leadership role with the issue, help broker a deal or cajole lawmakers into ratifying a program. So far, he has only said publicly that he supports the will of the voters and would call a special session if lawmakers tell him they’ve agreed on particulars.

Reeves, who holds sole authority to call a special session, could try to get the ball rolling, or just sit back and point at the Legislature and say he can’t help it if lawmakers can’t get their act together.

Special sessions can provide hyper focus on a single issue, and they often allow the clunky-by-design Legislature to hunker down and pass things they otherwise couldn’t amid the usual political flotsam and jetsam of a regular session. A special session — especially one during or near football season, deer season and the holidays — puts pressure on lawmakers to get things done so they can return home. Also, the costs to taxpayers of a special session add up quickly at tens of thousands of dollars a day, applying more pressure to get things done quickly.

Governors have used their special session powers, and this pressure, to get things through reluctant legislatures. It’s one of very few powers they have over legislation.

The Mississippi Legislature has otherwise been unable for years to pass a measure for the state to join dozens of others in legalizing medical marijuana, even as public outcry for it grew. That’s why the citizenry took matters in hand and legalized it last year, only to have the state Supreme Court come in and un-legalize it over what many considered a technicality.

Already, the extended negotiations on medical marijuana have seen one major eleventh-hour problem: State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson recently announced he wants no part in oversight of the program. He’s now threatening to sue if lawmakers pass a law putting him in charge of regulating cultivation and processing of marijuana (despite this having been discussed for months). This has likely delayed the “very, very close” negotiations.

Under Initiative 65, passed by voters in November, the state would have had a medical marijuana program launched in July, and would have begun issuing licenses for people with qualifying illnesses to start using the drug by Aug. 15.

Some very ill people could benefit from this. Voters spoke on this issue. State leaders have vowed to uphold their voice, and vowed to do so in a timely fashion. The clock has been ticking. It’s time.

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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.