As the state’s Republican legislative leadership waits for Gov. Tate Reeves to call lawmakers into special session for medical marijuana, a special committee of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus on Tuesday held a daylong hearing on the issue.
“The hearing will help us meaningfully evaluate legislation that has been crafted in the event of a special session,” said Black Caucus Chairwoman Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point. “And should the session not materialize, the caucus will use the information provided during the hearing to prepare its own medical marijuana bill.”
The caucus on Tuesday heard from medical experts, including state Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, on the pros and cons of medical cannabis and from patient advocates, policy and industry experts.
Mississippi’s GOP legislative leadership last week announced House and Senate negotiators had reached a deal on draft legislation to create a medical marijuana program. This would replace a program passed by voters last year through a ballot initiative, but struck down by the state Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn on Friday requested Reeves call the Legislature into special session to address the legislation, and other issues. But Reeves, who has sole authority to call a session and set the agenda, has not responded to the request, although he had previously said he would call a medical marijuana session if lawmakers could reach agreement. Both Hosemann and Gunn last week said they believe they have the votes to pass the measure.
The Black Caucus on Tuesday heard from Karmen Hanson, with the National Conference of State Legislatures, who outlined some of the medical marijuana policies, tax and fee structures of other states. She noted how varied they are.
“If you’ve seen one state’s cannabis regulatory program, you’ve seen one state’s cannabis regulatory program,” Hanson said.
The caucus also heard testimony from Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson, a day after Gipson held a press conference to reiterate his opposition to his agency helping oversee a medical marijuana program, as the draft legislation proposes.
“I disagree with the assumption that just because it’s a plant, it should be with the Agriculture Department,” Gipson said. He thanked the caucus for allowing him to participate in the hearing, and said he was not allowed to participate in similar hearings the legislative leadership held drafting the bill.
Gipson said that, among other concerns, his agency doesn’t have the staffing, experience or funding to oversee cannabis growing, processing and transportation. He said this would cost an estimated $3.5 million to $4 million a year, and legislative leaders have not said how it would be funded.
House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said, “We need to make sure everybody involved in this has the proper funding and staffing.”
Gipson said he believes the Health Department should be solely responsible for regulating medical marijuana, but that his office would provide any advisory or consulting help it needs.
“I know there’s going to be a medical marijuana program in Mississippi,” Gipson said. “This is the opportunity to get it right.”
Caucus members during the Tuesday hearing questioned many particulars of the bill drafted by the GOP legislative leadership.
Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, questioned the proposal allowing only indoor growing, in lock-and-key facilities of at least 1,000 square feet, in a state with some of the richest farming land in the world, and with many struggling small farmers.
“We are precluding Mississippi farmers in this bill from even being allowed to participate,” Scott said.
The caucus heard from minority farming advocates and university research experts, including the head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, who said the country has seen “virtually the extinction of the African American farmer” in recent decades. Cannabis could help “attract African Americans back to the land” for farming, he said. But allowing only indoor growing, he said, would prevent many Black farmers with small landholdings and less assets from participating.
But research experts noted that most states require indoor growing for medical marijuana to help improve the safety and standardization of products. Others noted that some states have used their land grant universities to help run medical marijuana programs and to help farmers get involved. Mississippi’s land grant universities are Alcorn State University and Mississippi State University.
A Mississippi patients advocate at the hearing Tuesday told harrowing stories and showed photos and video of children with debilitating conditions that could be treated with medical cannabis. Some Mississippi families have had to become “medical refugees” and leave the state for treatment, lawmakers heard.