Mississippi Today political reporter Geoff Pender talks with Rep. Lee Yancey, who has led the House’s efforts to pass a medical marijuana program. Yancey detailed legislative negotiations about the marijuana program, as well as an impasse lawmakers have reached with Gov. Tate Reeves over several details of the proposal.

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Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. 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.

Geoff Pender: I’m Geoff Pender, political reporter at Mississippi Today. We’re joined today by Representative Lee Yancey. Representative Yancey is from Brandon. He represents District 74. I believe he has represented that district since 2020. Former longtime state Senator as well, I’ve known Representative Yancey for a long time, and it’s still hard not to call him Senator Yancey. Anyway, Representative Yancey is chairman of the House Drug Policy Committee. And as such, he has been a busy man this summer. We’ve recently heard on this podcast from Senator Kevin Blackwell, who’s one of the lead drafters and negotiators of the medical marijuana bill.

READ MORE: No communication, last-minute gotcha: Gov. Tate Reeves is at it again with medical marijuana

Representative Yancey is his counterpart in the House. Y’all have been working closely together. Representative Yancey, Chairman Yancey, welcome. Thank you for coming on today. 

Rep. Lee Yancey: Thanks, Geoff. It’s great to be here with you. 

Geoff Pender: We’ll get to it. This past week in talking with you and others, there’s been some, I guess you would say, big news on the I guess everyone anxiously awaiting whether there’s going to be a special session for medical marijuana.

Anyway, I guess things are maybe looking a little doubtful or hit some snags this week. Give us an update on where things stand. 

Rep. Lee Yancey: Sure. It’s just the nature of politics. And as most of you know, politics comes from a Greek word, “poly,” meaning “many,” and “tics,” meaning “blood-sucking parasites.” So here we are being true to our nature.

We have been working very hard on medical marijuana. Bill, Senator Blackwell and I he’s been working since for probably a year now. And I just joined late in the game, back in late June, early July. And so I had a lot to learn, a lot of catch up to do, and I just looked over Senator Blackwell’s shoulder. And I had my ideas as to what a medical marijuana program should look like, and so did he. And together we have worked hard and come forward with this bill, and after much deliberation and meeting with House leadership and Senate leadership and then meeting with our respective caucuses and then meeting with Democrats as well, we finally have a bill that we’re ready to come forward with. And I believe it was September 24 when we notified the governor that we were ready for him to call a special session based on the fact that he had said, “When the House and the Senate are in agreement, then I will call a special session.”

And so at that time, the governor’s staff went over the bill as they should. And they came back to us with 11 things that they wanted us to change. And we looked at those 11 things, and we agreed that many of those things could be changed and should be changed. And we did change I think eight out of 11 things, and some of them relatively minor things but things that improve the bill. And we appreciated the governor’s perspective and included those things in the bill, and sent that back to him. And of course we didn’t give him a hundred percent of what he wanted. And so they kept the bill another week and looked over and thought about what was going on. And of course they have a lot more going on than just this bill. I mean, this has been my world, but it’s not necessarily everyone else’s world.

And so then they came back to us about a week later basically with an ultimatum. “You know, if you want to have a special session, then you will change this 3.5 grams to 2.8 grams for everyone except doctors.” So for your practitioners that we defined as physicians, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, optometrist, the governor said only the physician will be able to certify someone for 3.5 grams of smokable flower, and the rest would only be able to certify someone for 2.8 grams. And so we have been sort of fighting this similar battle on different fronts for several weeks and for a number of reasons, we didn’t want to do that. Number one, this becomes a scope of practice issue that we deal with in every session, whether it’s doctors versus nurse practitioners or it’s ophthalmologists versus optometrists.

And it’s one group wanting to have to increase the scope of their practice. And it’s another group trying to defend the scope, so that no one else can do what they do. ,And so this would have created a battles going on into the future for a decade. And we just thought all of these people can currently prescribe opioids, can prescribe anything, and they ought to be able to prescribe medical marijuana as well.

And so that was the first reason we didn’t want to change it. The second reason is that 3.5 grams is an industry standard throughout the medical marijuana industry; 3.5 grams is an eighth of an ounce. They work on the eighths. And so you can see some method to the madness when you look at our Mississippi Medical Cannabis Equivalency Unit, where we allow 3.5 grams of flower or one gram of concentrate or a hundred milligrams of THC infused in a product like an edible. And so if you change the 3.5 to 2.8, then you also in order for these other things to have the same amount, unless they’re only wanting to change the flower— and that was never made clear to us— you would have to also change the one gram of concentrate, and you’d also have to change the 100 milligrams of THC infused product.

And so, you know, that made that inconsistent. A third reason why it was unworkable was that law enforcement would have no way of knowing if they stopped someone who was on their way home from a dispensary for speeding, and they pulled him over and they happened to see their medical marijuana right there in the console. If a person has a valid medical marijuana card and they have the allowable amount or less, then they are deemed to be a participant in the medical marijuana program. So if someone had between 2.8 grams and 3.5 grams, the law enforcement officer would have no way of knowing if this were prescribed by a physician or by a nurse practitioner or by physician’s assistant or by an optometrist.

And that created problems. And we felt like it needed to be consistent across the board as to what the certifying amount would be, and since this was a standard with 37 states and the District of Columbia, we felt like Mississippi ought to have the same standard. Now, the fourth reason that we didn’t change it is because Mississippi has something that none of the other states who’ve passed medical marijuana had.

We have had a ballot initiative where medical marijuana was put on the ballot, and 62% of the people, 61 point something percent of the people checked, “Yes, I want to have a medical marijuana program.” Then question two was, “If you want to have a program, do you want to have 65 or do you want to have 65A?” Now 65 was the ballot initiative program that would have been in our constitution, and 65A was the legislative version. And of those folks, 58% chose option A, the 65 program.

Hope that wasn’t confusing. They chose the first option, which was the ballot initiative option. Twenty-one percent chose 65A, which was a legislative option. Twenty-one percent did not vote at all because they probably didn’t, couldn’t make themselves vote for a medical marijuana program. And then there was probably another thousand people who voted for both programs. And I’m really concerned about them, and we need to get them in to see some psychiatrists, but they voted for both programs.

 But of the people who voted for either option one or option two, 74% voted for option one. That’s where you get to 74. However you look at it, it was an overwhelming majority. And if you were to get 58% or 62% in a governor’s race, you got a landslide. It was a mandate. And so we go into this. That happened last November. In January Speaker Gunn called me into his office, and he says, “Lee, I’ve got a chairmanship for you if you want it.” I said, “I want it. What is it?” And he said, “Drug policy.” I said, “Oh my goodness.” And I said, “Well, at least medical marijuana is out of the way. I won’t have to deal with that. I’ll be dealing with kratom, and I’ll be dealing with Uniform Controlled Substance Act. And I won’t have to deal with medical marijuana.” But as you know, in May, the Supreme Court threw it out on a technicality.

And so then it fell right back into our laps. And so I began working on this with Senator Blackwell back in the summer. So other states did not have this mandate from a ballot initiative, and we do. And I feel like if we don’t present something to the people of Mississippi, that is at least similar to what passed in the ballot Initiative 65, then it’s going to either drive them to other states where they can get higher amounts. It’s going to drive them to the black market. It’s estimated Mississippi has a $700 million to $1 billion illegal marijuana black market right now. And if we could take a bite out of that and hurt them and put them out of business as much as we can, I think that’s a great thing. If we can get marijuana off the street, that’s a great thing. Because the thing about our product is it’s going to be tested. We’re going to make sure that doesn’t have any contaminants in it. It’s not going to have any fentanyl in it. It’s not going to have anything in it that can kill you.

So when people go to our dispensaries, it will be marked how much THC is in the product, how much CBD is in the product, and they’re going to know that what they’re getting is exactly what they thought they were getting. And so that’s the fourth reason, the ballot initiative. We need to put something in place that is similar to what passed with Initiative 65. So for all those reasons, we felt like we have got one of the best bills in the country. We’ve been told we have one of the best bills in the country. It’s a Frankenstein bill. We pulled it from a lot of different states. There are portions of it from Alabama and portions of it from Missouri and portions of it from different places.

But we took the best practices, and we talked to a lot of people and did a lot of research and feel like we’ve come up with a good bill. We thought the amount of marijuana that was allowed in Initiative 65 was a little bit too much. 

Geoff Pender: I was going to ask you if you could maybe back up a little bit. Probably a lot of laypersons are not gonna instantaneously be able to think of 3.5 grams or whatever, but tell me if I’m wrong. From y’all’s proposal, your 3.5 grams is a dosage unit, so to speak, an eighth of an ounce. You would be able to purchase up to, what, one ounce per week? 

Rep. Lee Yancey: One ounce per week and four ounces per month. Initiative 65 would have allowed five ounces. We reduced it by an ounce because we thought it was too much, and we added THC limits in the bill as well. And I think we’re one of the only states, if not the only medical state, that has THC limits, 30% on flower and 60% on concentrate. So like I said, we have one of the most conservative programs in the country that allows the smoking of the product.

And so, you know, I think that’s a significant point. And you know, we’ve already taken those steps to reduce the dosage, to add THC limits. And then we have those who are against the program totally who continue to try to undercut it and say, “Well, you haven’t cut it enough. You haven’t lowered the dosage enough,” while we are the lowest dosage in the entire country.

Geoff Pender: Well, for his part, Governor Reeves has made no secret he was against it totally, but has said he understands the will of the people is to have a program. Has he communicated or explained to y’all his reasoning for the lower dosage he wants? 

Rep. Lee Yancey: So the reasoning I believe comes from Dr. Dobbs, state health officer who’s got his hands full with a pandemic right now, and we appreciate all Dr. Dobbs has been doing. He’s been working night and day to try to make sure that we have enough hospital beds and enough healthcare workers and trying to get people vaccinated, and I can’t thank Dr. Dobbs enough for the job that he’s done for the pandemic.

But as a medical doctor you know, I think it’s no secret. Dr. Dobbs is no fan of the medical marijuana program, very skeptical of it, very willing to do his part as far as the regulation of the program. And I have the highest respect for him, but he’s not a fan of the program. And I think I’m speaking accurately when I say Dr. Dobbs suggested that the THC levels since 2015 have gone up 23%. He based that on some study that he got from somewhere. We patterned our Mississippi Medical Cannabis Equivalency Unit after Missouri’s Medical Cannabis Equivalency Unit, and that was put in place in 2015. And Dr. Dobbs says from 2015 to 2021, THC levels have increased by 23% across the country, therefore we need to reduce our dosage by 23% in order to compensate for that, which I really don’t think is an apples and apples argument. So subtracting 0.7 would account for the increase in THC doses. Now, that would be an average. It’d be across the country. It would depend on what samples that he looked at.

It would depend on what variety of cannabis he compared to what variety of cannabis, which might not necessarily be what’s being sold in Mississippi’s, dispensaries. There’s really not an apples and apples correlation to what he’s talking about that I can find or that I can understand. And granted, I may be very limited in my understanding, but the argument didn’t make sense to me other than the fact that this product has been Schedule I, you know, for many, many, many years. And so they have not been able to do the testing, the research, the clinical trials. And so doctors are very, very concerned about what the dosage would be.

My view is we would be the 38th state who’s done this. We are not hearing horror stories from other states about people overdosing and this being dramatically abused. Will it be abused? Sure. It will be abused. People abuse everything. They eat too much. They drink too much. They smoke too much, you know, and they pay the price for that. And this will be abused as well. But what we’ve done is that we have said you have to have one of 28 debilitating illnesses, things like cancer or seizures or Parkinson’s or muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis and ALS, dementia. I mean, on and on we could go— AIDS.

I mean, you have to have something really, really bad, wrong with you to even qualify for this. So we’re not putting a recreational program in place. And so there are people who are approaching this entire issue out of fear. It’s like, “What if people abuse it? What if something bad happens,” when there are other people who are approaching this out of hope. You know, I had cancer last summer.

Not a lot of people know that, and I lost 25 or 30 pounds. And they said, “Lee, if you don’t start eating, if you lose any more weight, you’re going to have to get a feeding tube.” I was like, “I don’t want a feeding tube.” I don’t want to get to that point. And I didn’t even think about medical marijuana, but looking at the research, I see that medical marijuana causes people with cancer who have something called kikexia— where they’re wasting away their body’s basically eating itself, people with cancer, people with AIDS, you see them when they’re just skin and bones— medical marijuana gives them an appetite and helps them to eat. That has value. That doesn’t solve their problem as far as what their illness is, but it helps keep them from losing so much weight that they die prematurely or they suffer unnecessarily.

You know, there are people who are terminal who are on opioids and are dependent on opioids now because they’ve been on them for so long. These opioids keep them either in a drug induced coma. They cause severe constipation. They take away any dignity that a person might have who’s suffering when medical marijuana might be a much better solution to dealing with their pain and give them the palliative relief they need to get through what they’re going through. They’re terminal. They need to be spending those last days with their families alert and lucid rather than in a drug induced coma. So I think about these people needing the hope that this drug provides, and there are others who approach this from a position of fear. It’s fear versus hope. And so I think the more people will research this issue, you will find more and more people moving from fear to hope. That’s what happened to me. I voted no on the initiative. I voted nay. I voted for 65A. I was skeptical as to whether or not the program would work, and the more I have researched it, the more I become a believer. And I’m not a user. I have not even tried it.

I’ve never had marijuana, but I believe it has a medical use and provides palliative relief to those who have these terrible conditions. And we have put safeguards all throughout this bill to make sure that it is as regulated as it can possibly be. 

Geoff Pender: I’m glad you talked about these conditions and people that are hoping for this. That gets lost in this debate I think sometimes pretty much. But look, as a lot of people out there watching this are especially the We are the 74 group and others who have pushed for this, they’ve gotten impatient. This has been going on, well, depending on how you look at it, for years, plural. They got this passed on a ballot initiative.

They got shot down. They’d been looking to the legislature. They’re, it would appear, kind of getting fed up that there’s been no session. There’s been no program passed. Are they justified in that?

Rep. Lee Yancey: Short answer? Yes. They are very justified in that, and you know, government, the wheels of government turn slowly sometimes. And it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes. I know people have been impatient with our work just since I’ve been involved for the last hundred days or so. When I tell you that there are so many moving parts to this bill, there are things people would not even dream of that we have had to deal with.

And I mean, when you’re looking at it from the business angle, you’re looking at it from the science angle, the medical angle, the religious angle you’re looking at it just trying to make sure that employers have protection that they need. What if your employees start coming to work high? Are they protected?

What do you do? And so we had to say, an employer— there’s no good way to test for marijuana, whether or not you’re impaired. If you were to use marijuana for the rest of the week and go on a binge and then a month from now have a blood test, you’re going to test that you are positive for marijuana. And it’s metabolized through your liver, and it stays in your system forever.

And so until there’s a better way to test for impairment, we had to say for employment’s sake that if you test positive that you could lose your job. And, you know, is that fair? Not necessarily, it’s not fair, but you know, you don’t want someone who’s high driving a forklift or flying a plane or doing brain surgery or whatever it is.

But there’s nothing that prohibits an employer from showing grace to an employee, a secretary who’s had cancer and who’s getting over it and trying to come back to work, and she explains to her employer, you know, that this is what her doctor has said she could try for gaining weight and this is her dosage.

And she could have an agreement with her employer that they understand that, you know, and so it’s just a matter of talking through what your problem is if you want to try to continue working. Some of these conditions, people aren’t gonna be working anyway. They can’t work. What they’ve got is preventing them from doing that.

We had to look at workers’ comp issues. You know, we had to look at the business side of it, as I said, the where can these places be located? We looked at what the municipalities were concerned with, the opt-out provision. How far can this be from a church or school or daycare? And one of the big issues that’s come up, believe it or not, is that we’ve said that you can’t put a marijuana facility within a thousand feet of a church, school or daycare, unless the facility is able to get a waiver from the church, school or daycare saying that they don’t mind it being closer than a thousand feet. Well, now there are groups who are upset that we are even allowing a waiver.

Okay. We’re saying we’re not going to put this business right on top of you unless you don’t care. And because we’re saying, “unless you don’t care,” they’re mad about that because they don’t trust their people to make the right choice. And so, you know, to me, the government shouldn’t be in the business of, you know, not giving people an option. You know, I think that we’re doing the right thing. We had to deal with the taxing issue with the sales tax, with the excise tax, with the regulation with Department of Health, the Department of Revenue. Lord knows you’ve been dealing with the Department of Agriculture and Commerce, so it has been a long, long journey to get to where we are and, you know, really frustrating to get to this point where we thought the finish line was and to have the goalposts moved again, you know.

Geoff Pender: And to that point of where we are now, I guess some folks that don’t closely watch legislative machinations— this is up to the legislature. The governor, he has the authority. He is the only person with the authority to call you guys back into special session. But beyond that, he’s not a legislator. He’s got to kinda sit back and let y’all come up with what’s going to happen, and you have an agreement. Even if you reach total agreement with him, then it goes to the legislative process and it can still be changed, right? 

Rep. Lee Yancey: Absolutely. I mean, any member can offer an amendment at any time, whether it’s in committee or on the floor in the Senate or in the House. So you know, this is a starting point.

You know, we’d certainly like to get this bill as is on the books. It’d be nice if we could do it now, and we could make tweaks in a special session. And then we can make tweaks in January because there will be things that need to be fixed, and we’ll find things between now and then as more and more and more and more people with different areas of expertise, read the bill and go, “You know, this really doesn’t work.”

And we say, “Yeah, you’re right. We need to change that.” But if we wait until January, you know, all of that tweaking is going to be taking place on the front end before we even have a bill signed into law. And it’s going to be much harder running back and forth from House to Senate to make sure that all of these changes get in there and that we have a majority who can pass these changes.

And because there’s a tax in the bill, it’s going to be a three-fifths majority on the floor of the House and Senate. So you know, lots of considerations and lots of reasons why it would be better to do it now in a special session rather than then, but we’re prepared to come in in January and deal with it. We have the votes to deal with it, and we look forward to doing that. 

Geoff Pender: Well, right now, the impasse appears to be the governor has come up with some, I would say, kind of last minute changes, demands, whatever you want to call it, throughout this process of months at least that there there’ve been hearings and stuff being drafted.

I mean, a lot of this was not kept secret, at least some of the broad strokes. During that period, could the governor have had input had he have had policy issues or things he wanted to see? Just seems like this is kind of coming late in the game. 

Rep. Lee Yancey: We have been communicating with the governor’s staff throughout the entire process, and they’ve been good to work with. And so some of the concerns we had already addressed, and some of the concerns we explained why we had the position that we had and we thought that was sufficient and evidently it wasn’t sufficient. So you know, just a misunderstanding, but, you know, I have done everything that I can do.

I’ve stayed in my lane. Kevin has stayed in his lane, Senator Blackwell. We have brought this bill to the point we were asked to bring it to. And now, you know, it’s up to the governor to call the session or not call the session. And then if he doesn’t call the session, then Senator Blackwell and I will continue to stay in our lanes, and we will work the legislative process as the session begins and get a bill passed and sent to the governor’s desk. And then it will be in the governor’s lane again, and he can choose to sign it into law or let it become a law without his signature, or he can veto it. That’s his purview. That’s perfectly constitutional, what he’s allowed to do. And then we’ll decide if that’s something that we want to try and override. So, you know, we’ll deal with that when we come to it. 

Geoff Pender: I know you guys or the the leadership too has kind of counted votes along the way. What kind of support do you think you have for the proposal at this point?

Rep. Lee Yancey: Well, I’m sure that a vote counting probably needs to be done on a weekly basis. It’s probably fluid. At one time, we had 80% in both chambers. There are those who still would vote “no” no matter what, and there are those who might vote “yes” if you change one or two things, but you might lose five or 10 more if you did change those things.

So it’s a very fragile agreement to keep the House and the Senate at 80%. You know, I think we have a great bill, just like it is.

Geoff Pender: At this point, how would you handicap the chances of there being a special session before January? 

Rep. Lee Yancey: I think that’s all in the governor’s court now. It’s in his purview, and, you know, he’s all upset right now and understandably. So, you know, I don’t know. To me, it’s looking like we probably will be going to January, but, you know, he could call it next week, so I don’t know. 

Geoff Pender: And it’s been put forth before that this could be done quickly. I’ve heard as quick as a day. Now, is that realistic? Is this something that could legislature come in, get it done and be gone?

Rep. Lee Yancey: I think it’s realistic. This has been out in the public domain for several weeks now. I think everybody who’s wanted to read the bill has read the bill. They’ve read the articles about it. They’ve asked me questions. They’ve asked Senator Blackwell questions. I think that I could explain it to my drug policy committee and answer questions in an hour or two.

And I think that we could get on the floor, and I could go through the entire bill through, you know, the 30 something main sections and give a decent explanation of what it does and then answer questions in several hours. And certainly think that we could do it in one day if it were expedited and there was nothing in the way.

 But it’s got to happen. It’s going to originate in the Senate. It’ll have to go through the Senate committee, the Senate chamber. It’ll have to be voted on. Any amendments the Senate makes will come over in the bill. If we could, pass it as is, or we could amend it further. If we amend it further, we’ll have to send it back to the Senate.

So depending on how many amendments there are, you know, that would determine the length of time that it took for us to deal with the bill. 

Geoff Pender: Sure, sure. Yeah. This has been the focus for months now. I know it’s been your focus definitely, and I know probably no one wants to get this done sooner more so than probably you and Senator Blackwell.

Rep. Lee Yancey: I think we would both look forward to sleeping again. 

Geoff Pender: Right, right. Well, thank you for coming on. And I’m sure we will be talking further as things go on and really appreciate you giving us an update. 

Rep. Lee Yancey: It’s been a pleasure. Appreciate you having me. 

Geoff Pender: 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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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.