Gov. Tate Reeves held his March 22, 2021, afternoon press conference regarding COVID-19 updates at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Saying he still has concerns about it — and would have written it differently — Gov. Tate Reeves signed the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act into law Wednesday afternoon ahead of a midnight deadline.

In a long Facebook post Wednesday, Reeves said he “committed to supporting the will of the people” who had passed a medical marijuana referendum only to have it overturned by the state Supreme Court. But he still doesn’t like it and has concerns it could lead to increased recreational marijuana use “and less people working.”

“I have made it clear that the bill on my desk is not the one that I would have written,” Reeves wrote. “But it is a fact that the legislators who wrote the final version of the bill (the 45th or 46th draft) made significant improvements to get us towards accomplishing the ultimate goal.”

Reeves said his goal “from day one (post Supreme Court ruling)” has been to help create a medical marijuana program and to “do everything in my power to minimize and mitigate — though knowing it is impossible to eliminate” recreational use.

Reeves listed “improvements we fought to include in the final version of this bill,” including reducing the amount of marijuana patients can get, regulations about doctors who certify patients and preventing dispensaries “within fewer than 1,000 feet of churches and schools.” He said he garnered “many other small (improvements) that I’m not mentioning” in the final bill he signed.

“I thank all of the legislators for their efforts on these improvements and all of their hard work,” Reeves wrote. “I am most grateful to all of you: Mississippians who made your voice heard. Now, hopefully, we can put this issue behind us and move on to other pressing matters facing our state.”

Reeves at one point during legislative negotiations on a medical marijuana program had threatened to veto it, saying it would allow patients to have too much marijuana. But lawmakers first reduced the amount from 4 ounces a month to 3.5 ounces a month, then down to 3 ounces before passing Senate Bill 2095 on to Reeves with overwhelming votes in both the House and Senate.

With the midnight Wednesday deadline approaching for Reeves to sign, veto or let the bill pass into law without his signature, Reeves had refused to say what he would do, even to legislative leaders.

But the House and Senate had passed the measure by overwhelming votes which, if they held, could have overridden a Reeves veto.

READ MORE: ‘Long time overdue’: Mississippi Legislature sends medical marijuana bill to governor

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 in May 2021 shot down the initiative, 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. Among other complaints, 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.

Lawmakers said they acquiesced to most of Reeves’ demands with the final version of the bill they passed Jan. 26.

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

The bill calls for the state Department of Health to begin accepting applications, registering and licensing ID cards and practitioners within 120 days. After 120 days, the department is required to begin licensing and registering cannabis cultivation facilities, processing facilities, testing facilities, research facilities, disposal and transport operations.

After 150 days, the Department of Revenue is supposed to begin licensing and registering dispensaries, within 30 days of receiving applications, or within 30 days after the initial 150 days, whichever is the later date.

The law requires all medical cannabis used in Mississippi to be grown and processed in state, so the earliest availability of it to patients is still months away, likely late this year.

The law 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.

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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.