The Legislature has approved changes to Mississippi’s cannabis law that will limit the information available to the public about businesses’ citation records and will attempt to crack down on inconsistencies from the agencies tasked with running the new medical marijuana program.
The bill, first filed in the House, was amended by a Senate committee and the full Senate before the House passed it last week. Gov. Tate Reeves must sign the bill before the new regulations are added to the law. The changes span from minor language tweaks to new provisions on background checks and public records.
The medical marijuana program has been fully operable — with dispensaries selling Mississippi-grown cannabis — for just under three months.
The rollout hasn’t been without hiccups. A Mississippi Today investigation found the Department of Health wasn’t being consistent, especially in its approval of cultivation plans, while dealing with a backlog of applications.
Legislators echoed businesses’ concerns throughout hearings over the bill.
“Unfortunately the Department of Health in their rules and regs probably accepted some things that were not intentioned (sic) by the bill,” said Sen. Kevin Blackwell, a Republican from Southaven and one of the bill’s authors on the floor on March 8. “So we are trying to correct those … and we do so in the bill.”
Legislators approved a new addition that says: “No state agency, political subdivision or board shall implement any rule, regulation, policy, or requirement that is contrary to the provisions of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act.”
The bill also turns a mistake by the Health Department into part of the law. Blackwell told the Senate that the department approved a large operator’s secondary location under one license when it submitted its application. The adjustment allows for the state’s largest cannabis growers to have up to two locations as long as the total canopy size doesn’t exceed 150,000 square feet.
That makes the setup of Mockingbird Cannabis, one of the state’s leading cultivators, with a smaller secondary greenhouse-style location 12 miles from their main site, acceptable under one license.
While growers have been debating if adapted greenhouses should be permitted, none of the bill’s updates directly addresses their use.
Mississippi Today was able to learn specifics about Mockingbird – and the construction of its greenhouse – through a public records request for the Department of Health’s investigation records.
The law’s changes make investigation records, including citations handed out by Health Department agents, exempt from the public record law until an investigation has concluded and all appeals ended.
An early draft of the bill called for such records to remain exempt from public record indefinitely, but some senators found the records being exempt from public record for any period unacceptable.
“I think if it was put out in transparency, it would dispel any of the back and forth on social media,” said Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, one of five senators who voted against approving the changes. “I think hiding that is only going to fuel that speculation.”
Critics pointed out an appeal process could take a long time, keeping citation records away from the public and legislators even if they’re ultimately found valid. Blackwell said the changes were made because of “falsehoods” being spread on social media as competitors became aware of other growers’ cited infractions.
The addresses of all cannabis-related businesses, outside of dispensaries, will also be exempt from public record and no longer posted publicly. Rep. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, said during hearings this was to protect businesses already not accessible to the public, which could make them vulnerable to crime because of the large amount of cash and marijuana products on hand.
The bill includes several other changes that affect patients and businesses:
- The Department of Health will now have only 10 days within submission (changed from 30) to approve a patient’s medical cannabis card application. This change comes after the department has experienced major backlogs in processing applications.
- Patients can now have a follow up with a different doctor than the one who first approved their medical cannabis card without disrupting their care or access to medical marijuana.
- Doctors and nurses who have approved a patient to receive a medical cannabis card can now help them fill out the online application with the state. Yancey said this was especially to help elderly patients.
- The law now specifies the Mississippi Justice Information Center of the Department of Public Safety and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will handle background checks on workers and caregivers.
- Testing facilities can become licensed transporters or contract with transporters.
- Businesses can display marijuana imagery in company logos and other branding. Dispensaries can also post pictures online to display what they sell.
- Hemp products are not affected by the cannabis act.
- Dispensaries can sell hemp items that are legal under federal law, such as low-THC products known as “CBD.” Dispensaries can also sell topical products that contain marijuana, which cannot be ingested, to patrons over 21 who don’t have a medical cannabis card. These products have to be placed in a separate area than the products for card holders.
- Dispensary licensees now have 18 months instead of 12 to complete construction and still maintain their accreditation.
- The Health Department can contract with private laboratories for compliance testing, but those labs cannot also perform commercial testing for medical cannabis businesses.