State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs stated how proud he is of Mississippians he has seen wearing masks as he’s traveled the state. Dobbs joined Gov. Tate Reeves to answer questions during a Covid19 update press conference at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi’s top doctor has “grave concerns” about the Legislature’s plan to fund a medical marijuana program. 

On Tuesday, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the state Health Department’s role in the proposed program would cost millions of dollars a year, which could cut care for necessities the department provides.

The Legislature’s program would replace Initiative 65, a ballot proposal passed by a majority of voters last November that was turned over by the state Supreme Court in May over a constitutional technicality.

Under Initiative 65, Mississippi’s medical marijuana program would have been self-funded through fees on all parties involved in producing and selling the product, as well as patients. The legislative proposal contains no such mechanism, and instead places all sales and excise tax revenue from the program in the state general fund. 

The proposal calls for the program to be regulated by MSDH, The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) and the Department of Revenue. 

MSDH has estimated that the health department’s role in the program would cost the agency $3.5 million per year. This includes patient and physician registry, lab and product safety, as well as regulations over packaging and advertising. During a committee meeting of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, Dobbs said MSDH is ready to take on these duties since the majority of regulations had already been drafted by the health department in preparing for Initiative 65 to go into effect. What they don’t have, Dobbs said, is the money. 

“Whenever these big pots of money get into our state general fund, and there’s a cut, it ends up cutting care for pregnant women and babies, and these other things get fully funded,” Dobbs said. “So, I just want to make sure that we’re very cautious about how we budget this money so that it doesn’t harm the public health mission.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson,  who said he opposes his agency being involved in marijuana regulations, raised similar concerns over the bill’s funding issues.

Under Initiative 65, the entire program would have been operated under MSDH, an approach Gipson has continued to advocate for. If the bill were to pass as written, MDAC would be responsible for regulating the growing, processing and transportation of marijuana. Gipson estimates it would cost his agency $2.9 million a year to perform these duties, a massive undertaking for a department that currently operates under a $7.5 million budget. 

“We don’t have anything in place today to do what this bill would require,” Gipson said. 

Gipson also raised concerns over potential corruption within his own department. His inspectors make between $25,000-$35,000 per year, and Gipson said they could be enticed to take bribes for clearing inspections that do not meet regulatory standards. 

It would also be inefficient to place duties on MDAC that could be better performed by other agencies, according to Gipson. He argued that the Department of Public Safety could more easily regulate transportation under existing programs, and the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics would be better suited and equipped to handle disposal.

“I don’t think it’s a great idea for the Department of Agriculture to have to go out and buy equipment and things that other agencies are already doing,” Gipson said. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Tate Reeves said he’ll call lawmakers into a special session on medical marijuana legislation “sooner rather than later,” and noted funding as one of the details that still needed to be worked out before a session is called. 

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.