Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at a press conference on Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

An early fight between the legislative leadership and Gov. Tate Reeves could be brewing if he vetoes a medical marijuana bill as he said he would do if it does not meet his specifications.

Many anticipate passing a medical marijuana bill will be one of the first priorities of the Legislature in the 2022 session. Most legislators, including Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, had expressed support for the governor calling a special session to take up medical marijuana after the state Supreme Court stunningly struck down the medical marijuana program approved by voters in November 2020.

But the governor, who has the sole authority to call a special session, refused in large part because he said the proposal worked out by House and Senate leaders allowed for too large a quantity of marijuana to be dispensed to individuals.

Reeves blocked the proposal for 2021 by refusing to call a special session. He now says he is likely to try to block the proposal in the 2022 regular session by the power of his pen — through his veto.

“As it is currently written, I don’t think I will be able to do that,” Reeves said referring to signing into law the bill that is expected to be offered during the 2022 session by legislative leaders.

Then Reeves said, “I am hopeful we can find at least 18 senators and 44 or 45 House members willing to vote against (the number needed to uphold his veto) so we can negotiate a true medical marijuana bill in our state.”

In 2021, while the Legislature was out of session, Reeves controlled the process because medical marijuana could not be taken up until he called a special session.

In the 2022 regular session, the governor still maintains a substantial amount of power in determining the fate of medical marijuana. After all, it takes an overwhelming two-thirds majority to override a Mississippi governor’s veto.

Overriding a gubernatorial veto used to be almost as easy for the Mississippi Legislature as taking candy from a baby. But when partisan politics began to emerge in the state, overriding a veto became much more difficult. For decades an overwhelming Democratic legislative majority had no problem overriding a fellow Democrat in the governor’s office.

But in the 2003 legislative session, Democrats in the House decided that overriding their fellow party mate — former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove — as he was preparing for a tough re-election campaign against Republican Haley Barbour was a bad idea. So, they did not, much to the chagrin of the House Democratic Speaker Tim Ford who wanted to conduct business as usual by overriding Musgrove.

Then for 16 years, legislative Republicans made sure that the vetoes of fellow Republican governors — first Barbour and then Phil Bryant — were not overridden.

The Republican legislative supermajority did override Reeves in his first year in office when he vetoed a large portion of the appropriations bill that funded the state’s kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

But overriding his veto of medical marijuana might not be as easy.

Remember there will be some legislators, primarily Republicans, who oppose medical marijuana and will not vote under any circumstances for a bill legalizing it. If there are enough of them combined with those who are loyal to or most likely agree with Reeves on the issue of limiting the amount of marijuana dispensed, it is possible that the overwhelming two-thirds majority needed to override the veto cannot be achieved.

Then, legislators who support medical marijuana will be forced to work with Reeves to try to hammer out an agreement.

Of course, the governor does risk political consequences if the ultimate result of his veto power play is that no medical marijuana bill is passed. Reeves can perhaps rightfully argue that legislators bear as much of the blame as he does. But the truth is he is the governor — by far the most highly visible of the politicians involved in the rift — so he most likely would receive the bulk of the blame.

And the fact that voters overwhelmingly approved the medical marijuana initiative in 2020 does not necessarily mean it will become law now that the Supreme Court struck it down.

In 1992 voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that removed the ban on a state lottery. Still, Mississippi did not get a lottery.

While the lottery ban was removed from the Constitution, there were not enough votes in the Legislature (only a simple majority was needed) to pass a bill establishing a lottery. That did not happen until the summer of 2018 — 26 years later.

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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.