Mississippi Today journalists Adam Ganucheau, Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender discuss where in the process lawmakers are on passing a medical marijuana program to replace the one struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court in May. Officials had promised a marijuana special session in August. Where are they?

Listen to the episode here.

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.

 Joining us today are my colleagues, Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender. Hey y’all. 

Bobby Harrison: Hey guys. How y’all doing? 

Geoff Pender: Hey Adam and Bobby. 

Adam Ganucheau: Well, I wanted to talk this week about something that is near and dear to all of us, at least our professional lives: medical marijuana. Just to kind of recap really quickly— as I’m going to do this, Bobby is cracking up at the joke I just made. I’m going to recap just very quickly where we’ve been and what we’re looking at now.

So back in November of 2020, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly passed initiative 65, which created a robust medical marijuana program. It’s a ballot initiative, so it wasn’t lawmakers who put it up for a vote. It was the citizens of Mississippi who did it themselves.

And they did that because lawmakers had sort of ignored this issue for years and years. About a week before that election, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed a lawsuit in state courts, challenging the constitutionality of the ballot initiative process that allowed the medical marijuana program to pass.

That of course worked its way through the court system, leading to a few months later in May of this year, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down both the medical marijuana program and that entire ballot initiative process. There was obviously a ton of political backlash across the state of Mississippi, very intense. Legislative leaders and just kind of, you know, rank and file lawmakers suggested that they wanted to come into a special session to do two things: to first, pass a medical marijuana program and second, to fix the ballot initiative process that was ultimately effectively taken off the books by the state Supreme Court decision. We were told, I guess, that that Governor Tate Reeves was, he said himself that he was willing to call a special session. He has that sole authority to do that. He’s the only one who can call them into a special session.

He said he’d do it only if lawmakers came to an agreement ahead of time on medical marijuana. We were told by legislative leaders after that that there would be an agreement, that they were working on it, and several of them suggested that we would see that agreement sometime in August and they’d be ready to come into a special session in August.

Well, here we are mid-September. Geoff, I’ll pose the first question to you. Where the hell are we with medical marijuana? 

Geoff Pender: The official answer you get is the same answer we’ve gotten I think since probably June-ish is that they’re close. They’re close to having an agreement. Now there’s a million moving parts to standing up a medical marijuana program and what little details coming out in the negotiations, you get close. Close may be a relative term, but by most reports, they’ve agreed on some of the broad strokes, but I think the longer this goes, the more of those details get brought in and get argued about.

And we’ve seen one major wrench got thrown into the works about a week ago. The talk has been since early this year, last session, that when the Legislature creates a program, it’s going to have the Department of Agriculture in charge of large segments of the program instead of the department of Health in the plan voters passed. Last week, you know, like after about a year of this talk, last week, Department of Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson came out and said, “I’m not going to participate in medical marijuana, any kind of oversight.”

He cited that, you know, it’s still federally illegal despite 38 states having either medical or some other form of legalized marijuana. And he said it’s still federally illegal, he’s not going to participate in it. And if the Legislature passes a law telling him to participate in it, he’ll sue, so. that’s a major issue I would imagine. You’re not hearing a whole lot out of the negotiators of what they’re going to do, but you know, that may have caused a little bit of going back to the main drawing board. You know, there’s been talk when they held hearings this summer, some states create a separate, you know, marijuana commission or whatever. And, you know, I suspect that’s more on the table now than maybe it was if Gipson is not going to participate. I’m sure they could try and force him to, but you know, if true to his word, he files litigation, I mean that can hold up this process for another year or two. Oh, it’s already been held up.

Adam Ganucheau: The Legislature doesn’t typically take kindly to an executive branch official trying to tell them what to do or what not to do. So, I mean, it’s the precedence there for them to sort of, you know, force his hand on it. That’s what they’re there for. They do that all the time. 

Bobby Harrison: Am I the only person who sees irony in this, that Andy Gipson, Mr. States’ Rights, pro-gun, pro-10th Amendment, states’ rights, is saying that I’m going to follow the federal law, not the state law. I mean, to me, that’s just priceless within itself.

Geoff Pender: In the past when he was a law maker, especially, he wasn’t really fond on federal government, or as you said, he appeared to lean more towards states’ rights, so that is kind of interesting.

Adam Ganucheau: Well, you know, the sort of debate or question that we sort of had internally at Mississippi Today last week was at this point being mid-September, you know, probably need to give lawmakers at least a week or two heads up, so we’re looking at, at the very soonest, October special session.

Now at this point in the year, is it even worth doing it in a special session, or should you just wait until regular session in January of 22? Bobby, what do you think? I mean, what do you make of sort of the merits of doing it now versus, you know, 2022 regular session? 

Bobby Harrison: I can see it both ways. I mean, first of all, whole consensus, I mean, you’re not going to call a special session until there’s consensus. I mean, right now there’s work to get a consensus between, I guess, Delbert Hosemann and Kevin Blackwell in the Senate and Representative Yancey and Philip Gunn in the House. Those are the people working to get a consensus. When they go in a special session, somebody wants to offer an amendment to change that consensus. They have every right to. So, the argument about a consensus is kinda misleading. I mean, but I mean, the reason you do it in a special session is to get it over with and get it done.

I lived through the 82-day tort reform special session. And what happens in the special session is there’s no deadlines, so you can go into a special session and just sort of sit there and stare at each other. I mean, the beauty of a regular session is there are deadlines. You have to get things done by certain deadlines or the bill dies, so that puts more of an onus on the Legislature to reach a consensus. But the reason I think it would be better to do in a special session, if that’s the way you want to go, there’s two reasons. First of all, I think— Geoff correct me if I’m wrong, but under the original initiative, the medical marijuana initiative had stood up in court.

There was supposed to be a program created I think in August.

Geoff Pender: No, programs stood up in July and should have been in operation issuing cards by August 15th. 

Bobby Harrison: So that’s one reason to do a special session. The other reason to do it in a special session is when the Legislature does go in session January 2022, there’s going to be so many issues.

There’s going to be more issues facing this Legislature than perhaps any Legislature I can remember from redistricting to whether to reinstate the initiative process, maybe medical marijuana, issue of whether to cut and eliminate the income tax. It’s just going to be so many issues facing Legislature.

They can get one or two of those issues done in special session. That would be a bonus for legislators. And I guess the state too. 

Adam Ganucheau: Yeah. That brings up another question, Bobby. I mean, as we’ve reported this out the last few weeks, specifically about medical marijuana, we’re talking about a special session for medical marijuana, but like I said at the very beginning of the episode when I was sort of recapping where we’ve been, early on shortly after that Supreme Court ruling, we were hearing talks from legislative leaders. Not everyone of course was on the same page, but even speaker Philip Gunn said this, that he wanted to come back into a special session to fix the ballot initiative. Because as of right now, there is no way for Mississippi voters to put an issue on the ballot in Mississippi. And that was one of those constitutional sort of rights granted to Mississippians for, you know, many decades, and that’s now gone. And so what is the status of that? I mean, have y’all heard anything about a special session for the ballot initiative fix?

Bobby Harrison: No. And if you recall Speaker Gunn, he talked about a special session for the ballot initiative. He didn’t mention medical marijuana when he first talked about a special session. He talked about the ballot initiative, but what’s interesting is there were so many major ballot initiatives that died when when the Supreme Court ruled.

Now, interestingly, there’s a ballot initiative on early voting, and those folks are just going ahead with gathering signatures with the hope that if they get the signatures, whenever the Legislature fixes it, they’ll do some type of retroactive thing and allow those signatures to count. So right now, there’s people presumably out in Mississippi gathering signatures for an initiative process that doesn’t work to allow Mississippians to vote in person early.

Geoff Pender: Yeah. There’s pretty much general consensus they’re going to wait on that. I don’t think there’s much strong talk at all about coming back in for that. Back to the medical marijuana though, I’d like to point out Bobby mentioned a couple of reasons why you might want to do a special session.

Another reason is for a singular issue such as this, and we’ve seen it with past issues, sometimes it’s far more easy to pass something such as a medical marijuana program in a special session in that you’ve got a hyper-focus on it. You don’t have the technical deadlines that you would in a special session, but you’ve got pressure.

You got deadlines. And with this being a singular issue, not the magnitude of tort reform, the governor can dissolve a special session if this goes off the rails and it were to look like they would be there 83 days. Certainly that would get dissolved. But I question—

Bobby Harrison: But that’s the only deadline. There’s no other deadlines.

Geoff Pender: No, but there’s pressure. They’re in during a time when they want to be going to football games, they want to be with their families working on their business. And I mean, we got holidays seasons coming up too, for that matter if this were pushed into October and November. But again some legislative leaders I’ve talked about wonder even if this were to go into the regular session, an extremely busy contentious regular session, whether they could even get a medical marijuana program passed period.

They’ve kicked this issue around at least since 2017 in regular sessions and gotten nowhere. You know, probably fending off having, you know, not having too many chefs in the kitchen, things like that. Now they missed the opportunity to do this quickly. I think if they would’ve jumped out there in June or July and had a special session on this, I think the opportunity would have been a little better to get it more quickly done.

But I don’t know if this goes into regular session if they would even be able to pass a medical marijuana program. Of course, whether they can pass one on a special session might be questionable too. But in the past we’ve seen sometimes that, you know, it’s easier for them if it’s a singular issue that they can focus on sometimes a special session is easier for that. And again, I understand the deadlines and the Legislature works on its deadlines, but I think the pressure, especially this late in the year, would be pretty intense on them to get something done and get out of there. So I still think, and some of the legislative leaders are saying right now that, you know, they still want to have a special session on this as opposed to pushing it back into the regular one.

Adam Ganucheau: I also think a good bit about the sort of politics of the relationship between the legislative leadership and Governor Reeves. Governor Reeves has the sole authority to call them into special session. I mean, they can’t do this unless he calls him in and as you just said, Geoff, the, the legislative leaders, Delbert Hosemann and Philip Gunn, they have clashed pretty, pretty hard, pretty directly with Governor Reeves just over the first two years of his term. And you know, I have to kind of wonder what exactly Governor Reeves’ calculus is in deciding at this point whether or not to call them back into Jackson, what that means for him politically. 

This really surprised me. In the 2020 regular legislative session, I say regular because that’s the official term, but it was anything but regular. It was what we think the longest regular session in state history because of the coronavirus and lawmakers, there were outbreaks. They had to kind of take breaks to avoid, you know, the spread of the virus at the Capitol.

And what legislative leaders decided to do— and keep in mind, this was the first year of the term as Reeves as governor and Hosemann as lieutenant governor, of course the third term for Speaker Gunn. But they gave themselves the authority to extend the session as long as they wanted to.

So they kept kind of extending the end date on the legislative session. And a lot of people, myself included, kind of thought that that might become the norm moving forward, that they would give themselves that power every single year. They didn’t do it in 2021, and I’m wondering if maybe they regret not doing it for this reason or others because now they’re completely relying on Governor Reeves to call them back to Jackson to fix this issue that a lot of Mississippians have zoned in on and if they don’t get it right they could all suffer politically. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, I thought the same thing you did, Adam. I didn’t think about it until 2020, but then I started thinking about it. If I was a legislator, I would always leave myself the option to come back. I mean, there was the longest session in history. I think you’re right about that, but it’s important to note they weren’t there in Jackson, the entire time. They just had the authority to come back because they had extended the session on paper, as they say.

Yeah, I thought they would do that again in 2021. And in reality, Philip Gunn wanted to, and I suspect Lieutenant Governor Hosemann did too, but I think the issue was that Hosemann over in the Senate could not get the two-thirds vote to do that, to keep them in session. 

Adam Ganucheau: That was effectively stripping the governor of one of his powers, I mean, constitutional powers and calling a special session. That definitely could have changed the landscape of Mississippi politics and certainly the relationship between the legislative and executive branches. Well, do y’all have any guesses on when this might happen? I mean, you know, putting you on the spot here, but do you think we’re going to see a special session, or do you think it’s just going to hold until 2022?

Geoff Pender: I think we’re going to see, at the least, lawmakers soon going to the governor. We’re talking within a week or two and saying, “We’ve agreed on everything we can. Call us back in.” You know, Reeves is in a position though. He could politically not agree that they’re close enough or something like that. And you know, it’s not a given that he’ll call them in unless they can certify that they’re that close in agreement. But I mean, if they’re going to do this in special session, they’ve got to move soon. You know certainly there’s no point in, you know, a December special session. That would create a lot of fear and loathing with everyone. So, I still kind of think we will. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, I think that if Reeves has no choice, I think if they say they reached an agreement, he said he’d call a special session. And I think it’d be bad for him politically to go back on his commitment. 

Geoff Pender: One thing, I mean, with special sessions past when there was something like this, Reeves has said he supports the will of the voters. Well, he doesn’t have to just sit back, you know, and wait for the Legislature to give him the go ahead.

I mean, he could be more involved in the negotiation, taking a leadership role, urging them, cajoling them, whatever. But I haven’t seen that with this issue. I think his office has been involved some in the negotiation and keeping tabs, but certainly this isn’t an issue that he’s just, you know, championed and been out with his megaphone or anything like that.

So you know at this point, it’s still in the Legislature’s court. 

Adam Ganucheau: Sure. Well, really interesting perspectives as always. And thank y’all for staying on top of this. I can’t help myself. I just have to circle back one more time to Andy Gipson. And I just think that, you know, I don’t know what exactly his calculus was in sort of publicly saying what he said about that, but my guess is that lawmakers don’t care too much about what Andy Gipson thinks at the Department of Agriculture. So we’ll see what they come up with, but I would bet some money on the fact that they’re gonna not take his perspective into account.

Geoff Pender: I don’t know. Andy’s against overseeing growing of the devil’s lettuce. Some farmers might not be real happy with that. 

Adam Ganucheau: At least for his perspective, we always know he’s at least against wild hogs, so shoot a bunch of hogs and keep that under control. Maybe that’ll be good enough, but good luck to him. If lawmakers pass a bill here on medical marijuana that that includes his agency in some way, good luck to him politically if he wants to oppose that after they pass it. So that’s all I’m saying. 

Bobby Harrison: I think Geoff’s right though. It could be an interesting court case of federal law versus state law. And I think the federal government would come in and say, “We don’t care.” 

Geoff Pender: That is what they’ve essentially done, but marijuana is still federally illegal. Gipson has a legal point there. 

Adam Ganucheau: Andy Gipson, the defender of federalism. Alright, y’all. Well, thanks again. Thanks for being here and thanks for helping us break it down. 

Bobby Harrison: Enjoyed it. 

Geoff Pender: Thanks.

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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Subscribe to our weekly podcast on your favorite podcast app or stream episodes online at MississippiToday.org/the-other-side. For the Mississippi Today team, I’m Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side is produced by Mississippi Today and engineered by Blue Sky Studios. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

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.