"Both my wife and I had health issues. Using marijuana helped us tremendously, it's what inspired us to open our business," Santita Delaney of Pearl, owner of Hemp World, said on May 25, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Legislature with little debate and overwhelming vote margins on Wednesday sent to the governor a bill to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi.

“I’m so excited for the patients of Mississippi,” said Angie Calhoun, founder of the Mississippi Cannabis Patients Alliance and mother of a son who suffered seizures and other chronic problems and at one point moved out of the state to use medical cannabis. “This has been a long time overdue for them, and relief is something we can actually see in the near future for them. I’m also excited for the voters of this state, to finally have their will enacted … So many members of our Legislature did what they said they would do, give the state a very good medical marijuana program and regard the will of the voters.”

READ MORE: Lost in the shuffle: Chronically ill people suffer as Mississippi politicians quibble over medical marijuana

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann called the measure one of the most parsed in Senate history and said he was glad to have the issue put to rest for now.

The Senate passed the final version of Senate Bill 2095 with a vote of 46-4. The House passed it 103-13. Gov. Tate Reeves’ office did not respond to questions of whether he would sign the measure. Reeves had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill, but lawmakers said they made many of the concessions he wanted. (See details of the bill below)

The vote margins in both chambers would be “veto-proof” — enough to override a governor’s veto — if they didn’t change.

This final version of the bill had been tweaked Tuesday evening to allow local governments more zoning control over where marijuana growing or processing operations would be allowed. The Senate also agreed to changes the House made to the bill last week, including lowering the amount of marijuana a patient can have from 3.5 ounces a month to 3 ounces and removing the Department of Agriculture from any regulation and oversight of the program.

Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson had opposed his agency being involved. The final version would have the Department of Health in charge of all oversight and licensing.

“I find it disappointing that the Department of Health now has to get into the agriculture business when they are so stressed with other things right now,” Hosemann said.

The effort for Mississippi to join a majority of other states that have legalized medical — if not recreational — marijuana has been long and contentious. For years, legislative efforts in this conservative Bible Belt state fizzled, despite growing support among the citizenry.

In 2020, voters took matters in hand and passed Initiative 65, creating a medical marijuana program and enshrining it in the state constitution. But the Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality shot down the initiative last spring, and even the process by which voters could pass initiatives.

Promising to heed the will of the voters, lawmakers worked over the summer to draft a medical marijuana bill. Reeves, who opposed Initiative 65, vowed also to heed the will of voters and call lawmakers into special session once they reached an agreement on a measure. They did so in September, but Reeves didn’t like the agreement and refused to call a special session. He said the 4 ounces a month of marijuana it allowed patients to buy was too much, despite it being less than the 5 ounces voters approved with Initiative 65.

READ MORE: How regulated should Mississippi medical marijuana be?

The bill the Senate initially passed this month allowed 3.5 ounces a month for patients and made other concessions Reeves had wanted. The House amended the bill last week, lowering the amount to 3 ounces a month.

Several medical marijuana advocates watched from one side of the gallery as the House took its final vote on it Wednesday afternoon.

On the other side of the gallery were many parents holding photos of their children who died of drug overdoses or poisoning. They were there in support of House Bill 607, which the House also passed overwhelmingly after the medical marijuana bill.

HB607 would create a first-degree murder charge for unlawful selling of controlled substances containing the super-strong opioid Fentanyl that causes someone’s death. The bill initially did not specify Fentanyl, but covered any controlled substance sold. It was amended during a lengthy floor debate Wednesday.

Judiciary B Chairman Nick Bain said the bill is aimed at cracking down on drug dealers, and would apply to those that sell drugs, not addicts who share them.

“The purpose is to protect the addicts,” Bain said. “I want to go up the chain, get the drug dealers, the bad actors … We have an epidemic among our ranks — pills laced with Fentanyl, heroin laced with Fentanyl … These parents up here have suffered unimaginable loss. I want to end this. People are exploiting our kids. People are exploiting our addicts.”

Some highlights of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act now before the governor:

  • Allows patients to receive up to 3 ounces of marijuana a month. Initiative 65 would have allowed up to 5 ounces a month. An earlier draft of the new bill would have allowed up to 4 ounces.
  • Allows people to receive medical marijuana for more than two dozen “debilitating conditions.” These include cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia and Alzheimer’s disease. It also allows it as treatment for chronic, debilitating pain. Conditions can be added to the list only by the Department of Health, not doctors.
  • Allows physicians, certified nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants and optometrists to certify patients for cannabis use. A patient has to have an in-person assessment, a “bona fide relationship” with the practitioner and a follow up assessment within six months. Only physicians can certify minors for use. For people aged 18-25 — most susceptible to abuse of the drug, Blackwell said — a doctor plus another practitioner have to sign off on certification.
  • Creates a “seed-to-sale” tracking system of marijuana production and sales, with strict reporting requirements for practitioners and cannabis businesses. It requires growing to be done indoors and does not allow “home grow” by patients.
  • Applies the state sales tax (currently 7%) to retail sales of cannabis. Applies a 5% excise for cultivation. Money collected goes into the state general fund. Patients would pay $25 for their certification cards, which are good for a year.
  • Allows the governing boards of cities or counties to opt out of allowing medical cannabis by a vote within 90 days of passage of the act. If they opt out, citizens can opt the city or county back in by referendum.
  • Will not prevent any employer from firing or refusing to hire someone who is using medical cannabis, or from having drug testing policies. Landlords are not required to allow medical cannabis production or use in rental property.
  • Prevents people losing custodial or visitation rights with their children for use of medical cannabis, and says users shall not be denied the right to purchase or possess a firearm. But federal firearms purchasing regulations still prohibit marijuana use.
  • Creates a tier system of cultivators and fees. This starts with a “micro-cultivator” of 1,000 square feet or less, with a one-time license fee of $1,500 and an annual renewal fee of $2,000 and goes up to a “tier 6” grower of 100,000 square feet or more, with a license fee of $40,000 and an annual renewal fee of $100,000. A similar tiered system and fees apply to dispensaries.
  • Requires the Health Department to begin issuing cards to patients within 60 days of passage of the measure, and requires start of licensing of growers within 120 days and dispensaries within 150 days.

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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.