Mississippians hoping to start medical marijuana businesses are up against a new obstacle: city aldermen.
Despite voters overwhelmingly passing Initiative 65 to create a medical marijuan program in November 2020, the state supreme court struck it down on constitutional technicality. After months of uncertainty, Gov. Tate Reeves signed the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act into law in February 2022. Now, some local business people hoping to get a foothold in the industry are being blocked by their elected officials.
One Mississippi pharmacist’s plans to open a dispensary in Brandon are paused indefinitely and cultivators with hopes of growing the plant in nearby cities are facing the same hurdles.
Four city boards in Brandon, Ridgeland, Gluckstadt and Pass Christian have already voted to sit out of the state’s medical marijuana program and at least a few others from Winona to Sumrall are likely to take up their own opt-out vote ahead of the state’s May deadline. Patients in opt-out cities can still possess medical cannabis, but the municipalities won’t allow dispensaries or cultivators to open businesses within their limits – at least for now.
“This was expected,” said Slates Veazey, a Jackson attorney and expert in cannabis law. “It’s something businesses and the industry have been watching closely. More cities are likely to do the same.”
Advocates for medical marijuana call the choice to sit out the program short sighted. City leaders say they’re just being careful: They’d rather see how medical marijuana businesses play out in other cities before allowing them in their own communities.
If there is anything Mississippi’s cannabis businesses have grown used to, it’s hold ups.
Veazey said past May, businesses will still be up against zoning laws even in cities that haven’t opted out. The new program, for example, only allows grow operations to open in areas zoned for agricultural or industrial use. While counties may rezone areas to accommodate for the new businesses, some counties could also take the opposite approach.
“Some of the folks who have been planning this for awhile have had informal conversations with local officials to get some assurances,” said Veazey, who advises cannabis businesses as an attorney with the Bradley law firm. “Already, there are only so many pieces of property these businesses can be located.”
During a public hearing earlier this month in Brandon, Buell Polk – who owns a chain of local pharmacies – told the board of aldermen his hopes of turning a long-vacant bank into a dispensary nearby one of his existing Polk’s Drugs shops.
“I’ve been dispensing medicinals in Brandon and Rankin County well over 50 years,” he told the board. “I think I’m qualified. I’ve been dispensing drugs all these years…I think we can do a good job.”
He said his could-be business would be near several assisted living facilities and nursing homes, the city’s major hospital, and four pharmacies. It would be centrally located for people with severe or terminal illnesses who qualify for medical marijuana under the new state law.
“Give us the opportunity to help these people,” Polk said.
Cities have the option to opt out of just dispensaries, just cultivation operations or both. Brandon’s economic development director, Todd Troxler, asked the board to consider allowing indoor marijuana growing facilities.
Businesses have already started building facilities in the state, taking over abandoned warehouses with the promises of upwards of 100 jobs.
“If you opt out, we don’t even have a chance to get one,” Troxler told the board.
Ultimately Brandon’s board voted 5-2. The city’s mayor said he didn’t see the harm in waiting to see how the program worked elsewhere first.
Cities can opt back into the program. But if they don’t opt out before May 3, they have no flexibility if they want out.
In Ridgeland, the vote to opt out was unanimous. Pass Christian’s board voted the same way, making it the first Gulf Coast City to opt out.
“We did the right thing,” said Pass Christian Mayor Jimmy Rafferty. “We can look at other towns, get key learnings from them and decide if it’s the right thing for Pass Christian.”
Residents and leaders across these cities expressed concerns over crime increasing to needing time to sort out their city’s zoning codes.
Mississippi’s newest city, Gluckstadt, voted 3-2 to opt out this month. Despite being home to a little over 3,000 residents, the city’s mayor said it still had numerous inquiries about potential businesses.
Gluckstadt’s mayor, Walter Morrison, said his city’s standing as a newly designated municipality puts it in a unique spot. There is still a lot their community is establishing without the addition of a new industry.
A grower interested in opening a cultivation facility in Gluckstadt told city leaders he could bring dozens of jobs with average salaries of $60,000, said alderman Jayce Powell. Dispensary sales taxes would likely up the city’s revenue.
“Financially it’s very beneficial,” Morrison said. “But everything brings with it some cost. What if crime does really increase in the next year and I don’t have a police dept to combat that?”
Powell said he’s frustrated. The city’s citizens largely voted in favor of medical marijuana in 2020. It’s more than just about economic impacts – it’s access.
Carroll County’s sheriff has urged the county to opt out. The police chief of Cliton also told the city’s aldermen to be cautious about allowing the program too quickly.
Several studies have shown medical marijuana doesn’t correlate to higher crime rates, but it does generally make marijuana more accessible to those who are not prescribed it.
“We definitely are disappointed that those four municipalities have decided to opt-out. Especially considering that over a combined 127,000 voters in the counties those municipalities are located in, voted for Medical Cannabis in 2020,” said Melvin Robinson, the spokesman for the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association.
Residents in each of the affected cities have started up petitions to opt back into the program, according to the association. The petitions require 1,500 signatures – or 20% of the electorate, whatever is less – to trigger a special election.
The election to overthrow the opt-out would have to be held within 60 days of the petition’s file date.
Those who support medical marijuana aren’t taking the opt-outs without recourse. The trade association is hosting a signature drive in Brandon on Saturday.
It’s inside Buell Polk’s pharmacy.