Three opponents — a sheriff, a lawmaker and a public health policymaker — of making medical marijuana legal in Mississippi said this past week that voters who disagree should support the more restrictive of two initiatives on the November ballot.
Known as Initiative 65, the medical marijuana referendum got on the ballot after more than 220,000 people signed petitions for it. The Legislature, which had shown little appetite in the past for addressing the issue, then exercised its right to put a second option on the ballot.
The original initiative, if approved by voters, would allow adult residents to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks, as long as they have been certified by a doctor as having one of some 20 illnesses. The Mississippi State Department of Health would issue a card that would allow these patients to buy the drug from a licensed medical marijuana treatment center.
The Legislature’s counterproposal permits local zoning that would restrict the location of treatment centers. More importantly, it would limit marijuana to people with a terminal illness. Those with less serious conditions, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder, would be able to use marijuana-based oils or other forms of the drug but not the leaf form.
On the surface, the difference between the two proposals is a matter of degree. One wants a more expansive definition than the other regarding who qualifies to legally smoke or ingest marijuana. But that’s not all that is at play here.
The alternative is mainly intended not to pare back Initiative 65 but to kill it. Historically, whenever voters have had alternative constitutional amendments to consider, neither one passes, because the vote gets diluted between the two of them. Lawmakers have employed that strategy effectively before.
The biggest concern about Initiative 65 is its method. It got on the ballot not because a majority of citizens were clamoring for it, but because a few influential people — most notably, a wealthy state lawmaker/businessman — put up a bunch of money to hire the paid signature gatherers and the public relations professionals to push the initiative forward.
Furthermore, regulating medicinal drugs through the constitution, as Initiative 65 would do, is problematic. Normally, such decisions are made through general law, which allows the regulations to be tweaked through subsequent legislative action, if the law produces some unintended consequences. With a constitutional amendment, the only way to change it is through another constitutional amendment approved by voters. That could be slow and cumbersome.
The legislative alternative to Initiative 65 tries to address this concern by leaving it up to lawmakers to set the tax rates, possession limits and certain other details, rather than enshrining the regulations in the constitution. That really is a better approach.
With two competing initiatives on the ballot, proponents of Initiative 65 might have to accept that the odds are against theirs getting enough votes to pass. Therefore, if they want medical marijuana legalized in any form, they may have to throw their support behind the Legislature’s less broad but more adaptable alternative.