Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann speak after Gov. Tate Reeves press conference in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, May 7, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves is holding up efforts to enact a Mississippi medical marijuana law.

The first-term Republican governor’s refusal to call a special session is preventing legislators from taking up and presumably passing a bill approving medical marijuana.

While Reeves is, at this point, the sole person blocking efforts of legislators to at least take up the issue of medical marijuana, there is plenty of blame to be shared by both House and Senate leaders as to why the state does not already have a medical cannabis program.

Medical marijuana is an issue that legislators have been dragging their collective feet on for years.

First and foremost, during the 2021 session, the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, passed a bill that would have made medical marijuana legal by now if the House had passed it and if it was signed into law by the governor.

The House opted to let the bill die.

The backdrop is that many supporters of medical marijuana did not want the Legislature to pass a bill that they feared would supplant Initiative 65 that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November 2020 to legalize medical marijuana.

The bill approved by the Senate would have gone into effect only if the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out the citizen-sponsored Initiative 65. As everyone now knows, the Supreme Court in a lawsuit that was pending when the Senate passed its bill did strike down Initiative 65, citing problems with the language establishing the initiative process.

Since that controversial Supreme Court ruling in May, legislators have been trying to reach agreement on a medical marijuana proposal that could be taken up in a special session.

There was a second moment in the 2021 regular session that could have already decided the fate of medical marijuana. Had the Senate agreed to what some members of the House wanted earlier this year — an extended regular session — the Legislature could have come back into session on its on to enact medical marijuana.

The state Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to extend the regular session essentially through the entire year if two-thirds of the membership of both the House and Senate agree. While the House wanted to do this in 2021, the Senate leaders had no interest.

The session extension resolution could be crafted in a way that legislators would only return to the Capitol if Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn agreed on a reason for them to return.

But lawmakers are responsible for the delay dating back many years before 2021. Truth be known, as neighboring states began to legalize medical marijuana years ago, the Mississippi Legislature should have seen the writing on the wall — the broad public support for medical marijuana — and acted before it ever got to a citizen-sponsored initiative.

And when the initiative was filed, legislative leaders should have known there was a good chance it would be successful. That is especially true since it had the backing of state Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, who has the tech savvy needed to wage a successful campaign to gather the number of signatures of registered voters needed to place an issue on the ballot.

Legislators could have passed a medical marijuana bill early on after the initiative was filed. The Legislature’s legalization of medical marijuana most likely would have taken the steam out of the initiative.

To further parse blame, there would have been less of a chance a lawsuit would have been filed challenging the initiative had the proposal not incorporated many of Bomgar’s libertarian principles, including the restraints on taxing the product and the wide discretion in its use.

In fairness to Reeves, one of the few powers the Mississippi Constitution gives the governor is the authority to call a special session. He is using that leverage to say precisely what he wants the bill to entail.

That is his right. But as a veteran of the legislative process, the governor also should know that even if legislative leaders agree to his demands, it would be difficult for them to guarantee that an amendment offered and passed by the full membership during debate would not be contrary to Reeves’ wishes.

The legislative leadership, presumably, could limit debate and prevent amendments from being offered. But how would it look to pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana without debate?

Another option would be for Reeves to do the hard work of gaining commitments from enough lawmakers to ensure amendments changing his proposal did not pass.

But if Reeves does not want to do that work — as other governors have done in the past — he can simply keep them from convening. He has that power, at least until January when the 2022 regular session begins.

Then, legislators can pass whatever medical marijuana bill they want, and it will be up to Reeves to sign it or veto it. The question then will be does he want to veto medical marijuana that has been approved overwhelmingly by the Mississippi electorate.

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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.