When Mississippi lawmakers in the early 1990s grudgingly approved a process for citizen-led initiatives, they made sure it wouldn’t be easy to do.
They set a high threshold for petition signatures and required that they be spread fairly evenly around the state. They also gave lawmakers the opportunity, should an initiative be particularly noxious to them, to place an alternative proposal on the same ballot.
The result has been that relatively few initiatives have ever made it to a popular vote. Of the 56 qualified initiatives that have reached a final resolution since 1993, just seven garnered enough signatures to be put on the ballot, and just three of those have passed.
The effort to get voters to approve medical marijuana in Mississippi shows one way to overcome the legislatively designed obstacles: Find a rich person who is passionate about the topic.
Initiative 65, which would allow the legal purchase of marijuana to treat debilitating medical conditions, is being heavily bankrolled by one individual, state Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison.
Of the $2.5 million raised and spent to get through the signature-gathering stage, Bomgar has been responsible for more than half of it. The tech entrepreneur has chipped in $600,000 and guaranteed another $800,000 in bank loans.
Bomgar has said that his interest in this subject is personal. He watched both of his parents suffer terribly with terminal cancer, despite having the resources to have the best chemotherapy and legal painkillers available to them.
Bomgar and other proponents of medical marijuana say it can lessen such suffering without the downsides that opioids can bring.
They make a good argument. It’s obviously one that has gained traction nationwide. Not only have 34 states now legalized medical marijuana, but polling in conservative Mississippi shows a likelihood that the initiative will pass if it’s on the ballot next November.
Bomgar apparently decided to provide the financial backing to put medical marijuana to a popular vote when he couldn’t convince his fellow lawmakers to act on the idea.
First elected in 2015, Bomgar sits on the Drug Policy Committee of the House. His first three years in office, he filed bills to create a pilot program for medical marijuana. He wasn’t able to get the proposal out of committee.
He has also been progressive when it comes to other aspects of the state’s cannabis laws. He has sponsored legislation to legalize industrial hemp, to reduce the criminal penalty for those who sell small amounts of marijuana, and to prohibit law-enforcement agencies from seizing the assets of those found with an ounce or less of marijuana (enough to make roughly two dozen joints).
All of these bills have died in committee as well, although the Legislature did establish a task force this year to study the cultivation of hemp and to make recommendations for the Legislature to consider in 2020.
Bomgar also has a sister, Christina Dent, who has become a major advocate in Mississippi for a radically different approach to drugs. She would go much further than her brother in trying to solve a drug war that has filled up prisons and decimated neighborhoods without reducing drug use. She wants the state to treat drugs as it does alcohol, legalizing all forms of narcotics — from marijuana to heroin — but with government regulation on their manufacture and distribution. She has taken her message around the state, including to Greenwood earlier this year.
Bomgar may have the right idea about medical marijuana. Even so, it is disconcerting that the initiative process can be driven by one person, if that one person has enough money.
Initiatives are supposed to demonstrate “people power” through all stages of the process. The idea is for citizens who are passionate about an issue to band together statewide to get neighbors and friends to sign petitions to get laws enacted that lawmakers won’t pass.
The push for medical marijuana is not being led, though, by a grassroots effort, but rather by a sophisticated team of well-paid consultants. The nearly 106,000 signatures were largely gathered not by volunteers but by employees of a firm paid more than a million dollars for its work.
Maybe that’s the only way most of the time to get an initiative on the ballot.
Still, it appears as if Bomgar is buying a shortcut. Rather than building coalitions at the Capitol and doggedly trying to persuade lawmakers of the merits of an idea, which is what legislators of more modest means have to do, he is paying a ton of money to bypass his colleagues.
Even for a good cause, that doesn’t seem quite right.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.