Digging his heels in the sand to avoid moving forward with a proposed medical cannabis bill in 2021, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves now finds his veto card fading quickly in 2022.
That’s because the House passed an amended version of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act, 105-14, on Jan. 19, displaying overwhelming bipartisan support of a legalization effort that ignited with November 2020’s voter-approved Initiative 65. The state’s Supreme Court struck down that initiative on a signature-gathering technicality in May 2021, and state lawmakers have been working on crafting legislation since.
“Why are we here?” Rep. Lee Yancey asked on the House floor Wednesday. “We’re here because in November of 2020 there was a ballot initiative. In that ballot initiative, [68.5 percent] of the people indicated they wanted a medical marijuana program. They indicated that that was something they thought would be good for relief for those who were suffering.”
Despite the Mississippi Legislature’s 2021 adjournment coming a month before the Supreme Court decision, state Sen. Kevin Blackwell and Yancey, both Republicans, began working on a legislative pathway aimed at honoring the voters’ will while the congressional body was out of session.
But that legislative effort came to a standstill in fall 2021, when Reeves refused to call a special session. Despite opposing Initiative 65, the governor indicated his willingness to call a special session should Senate and House leaders come to a compromise proposal that attracted majority support in both chambers.
Although Blackwell and Yancey presented Reeves a proposed bill, the governor kept coming back with more and more demands, Blackwell told Cannabis Business Times earlier this month.
Now convened for its 2022 regular session, the Mississippi Legislature is closing in on passing the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act (Senate Bill 2095), most recently with the House’s amended approval of the legislation on Wednesday.
“I am so delighted to be standing here right now,” Yancey, chairman of the House Drug Policy Committee, said on the House floor. “This has been a long time coming. And I think all of you know how you’re going to be voting on this bill. This is something that I never I thought I would be doing.”
Yancey’s comments came six days after the state Senate passed its version of the bill via a 46-5 vote.
The House’s passed version of S.B. 2095 offered three amendments that were first approved in committee.
First, House lawmakers reduced the allowance limit from 3.5 ounces to 3 ounces of dried cannabis flower per month. While the House kept the daily unit structure to 3.5 grams of dried flower, 1 gram of concentrate or 100 milligrams of THC in an infused product, lawmakers in the lower chamber put an allowance cap at six units per week and 24 units per month for qualifying patients.
While voter-approved Initiative 65 proposed a 5-ounce monthly limit, legislative leaders originally proposed a 4-ounce limit in their draft legislation presented to Reeves last year. The governor came back asking that the limit be lowered to 2 ounces. In a late December social media post, Reeves questioned whether the legislative leaders were proposing an adult-use program rather than a medical program.
Yancey took aim at the governor’s insinuation this week.
“This is a medical program,” Yancey said. “This is not a recreational program. This is for people who are sick. This is for people with debilitating illnesses.”
Some of those debilitating illnesses included in Mississippi’s medical cannabis bill include cancer, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s disease, spastic quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis and seizures, among several other qualifying conditions.
In addition to daily units and allowable limits, S.B. 2095 would put a THC content cap of 30% on dried flower and 60% on concentrates.
The second amendment the House attached in its version of S.B. 2095 includes removing the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce from oversight duties in the legislation, forwarding those responsibilities to the Department of Health. Meanwhile, the Department of Revenue remains the regulatory arm for dispensaries and tax collection in the House’s version.
And third, the House approved an amendment that would allow cultivation and processing facilities to be zoned in commercial areas (in addition to the industrial and agricultural zoning in the Senate’s version of the bill).
Yancey also highlighted the importance of a medical program including testing facilities to ensure purity, potency and efficacy, specifically as it pertains to offering products that are free of led, contaminants, restricted pesticides and insecticides, fentanyl and other drugs.
And he stressed the ongoing need for research and development, particularly at the university level. The University of Mississippi’s Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (RIPS) has a federally funded program that has provided cannabis to researchers through the National Institute on Drug Abuse for more than 50 years.
“In these research facilities, they will help determine what cannabinoids work on what illnesses,” Yancey said. “And we need more research in this field. You’ve heard of THC. It is a cannabinoid. You’ve heard CBD. It is a cannabinoid. There are over 150 cannabinoids in a cannabis plant. And science has only so far determined what 14 or 15 of them are. The research and the potential of medicine for this plant, and the uses, is unlimited.”
But the crux of the bill revolves around properly approving qualified patients to participate in a medical cannabis program, and then providing those qualified patients access to the medicine they need, he said.
Another qualifying condition included in the current version of the bill is cachexia, also called wasting syndrome, a condition that causes the body’s muscles to waste away, according to WebMD.
“Cachexia is what I had when I had cancer,” Yancey said. “I lost 25 pounds. They said, ‘Lee, if you lose any more weight, you’re going to have to get a feeding tube.’ I said I don’t want a feeding tube. I don’t want a hole cut in me. I don’t want to do that. And I didn’t know about medical cannabis at the time. I didn’t even think about it.”
Every day after his radiation treatment, Yancey said he consumed a 1,000-calorie milkshake to try and keep weight on his skin-and-bones, 170-pound frame.
“Some people need medical cannabis in order to be able to eat because it increases their appetite,” he said. “Medical cannabis helps with their pain. Medical cannabis helps them stop shaking when they’re seizing or when they’re shaking uncontrollably because of a nerve disease.”
With the House amendments, the bill heads back to the Senate for further consideration. Should the Senate approve the House’s amendments without further revisions, the legislation would head to Reeves’ desk.
While Reeves threatened last fall to veto proposed legislation, which did not meet his demands, both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature represent the two-thirds majority necessary to override a gubernatorial veto on S.B. 2095.
Mississippi’s Republican-led Legislature already overrode a veto by Reeves in 2020, in relation to the state’s public education budget. It was the first time since 2002 that Mississippi lawmakers had undone a gubernatorial veto, according to Mississippi Today.
Blackwell, who authored S.B. 2095, told CBT earlier this month that it’s not the intention of the Legislature to override an executive veto, and that he and Yancey made a concerted effort to accommodate the majority of Reeves’ requests for the legislation, but ill and suffering Mississippians should not have to wait any longer for a medical cannabis program.
While Reeves wrote in his December social post, “I cannot put my name on a bill that puts that much marijuana on the streets of Mississippi,” Yancey denounced that claim on the House floor Wednesday.
After listing off all the qualifying conditions, Yancey said, “So, you can see you have to have something seriously wrong with you in order to go to a practitioner and even be referred to get a medical cannabis card. This is not for everybody out on the street. This is not for a bunch of kids. This is for hurting people with debilitating conditions. And that’s who I want to help. Those are the only people I want to help.”
Yancey added, “And when I got involved in this bill, I said how can we build a wall around this program so that the people who get it are the people who need it the most and only the people who need it the most."