Golden Triangle lawmakers say they support the effort to pass legislation to begin a medical marijuana program.
Whether they support the proposal hammered out by negotiators from both chambers of the Legislature this week largely depends on the details which legislators said they have yet to learn.
“To be honest, I’m still investigating, trying to find out what’s in it,” said Rep. Kabir Karriem (D, Columbus). “There are some concerns I have. To me, this is our own shot to get it right, so I hope what’s in this bill is faithful to the initiative the voters passed.”
Negotiators from the state House and Senate announced Thursday they had agreed on a bill and will ask Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session of the Legislature to vote on it.
The plan expected to be presented in the special session differs in many ways from the one passed by voters.
“I’m really not sure if I can support this version or not,” said Rep. Dana McLean (R, Columbus). “I was hopeful that we would have a more conservative approach than the one in the (voter) initiative that passed, and we could amend it and tweak it from there.”
Among McLean’s objections to the proposed bill is language that would allow medical marijuana to be smoked, something she said she opposed during an appearance before the Columbus Rotary Club in July.
“That’s one of the things I was hoping wouldn’t be in this legislation,” McLean said. “I think allowing it to be smoked makes it harder on law enforcement to manage. I would have much rather seen it used in other forms, like maybe an inhaler like you have with asthma.”
Rep. Rob Roberson (R, Starkville) said one part of the planned legislation he favors is a sliding fee scale for those who want to grow or dispense medical marijuana.
“From what I understand, the fees vary depending on volume,” Roberson said. “I like that idea because I don’t want to see big out-of-state corporations being the only ones who can be involved on the business side. I think this allows people in the state to be a part of it if it’s something they want to pursue.”
Roberson said he was also concerned about rumors that the gun rights for those who applied for a medical marijuana card could be jeopardized.
“Fortunately, our Second Amendment rights aren’t going to be affected by this,” Roberson said.
Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D, West Point) said she, too, was concerned about who would be allowed to pursue medical marijuana as a business opportunity.
“My primary concern is making sure this is a business and industry where there aren’t too many barriers for people who are interested in getting into the business side of marijuana,” she said. “There’s still a lot I don’t know about this bill, so it’s hard to say if I will support it or not. I’ve always been for medical marijuana, but I didn’t support the bill the Legislature planned to compete with the one the voters supported. I would hope that this new bill would reflect what the voters passed. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Sen. Chuck Younger (R, Columbus) said he is confident he will vote for the bill if a special session is called.
“I’m for medical marijuana and I’ll vote for it,” he said. “I really can’t see a reason not to. The FDA has approved far more powerful drugs than marijuana. To me, marijuana is a lot safer than a lot of these pain pills we have out here.”
A provision in the bill allows cities and counties to opt out of the program, but voters will be allowed to overturn local government bans through a referendum.
“I think there are a lot of conservative communities that may end up opting out,” McLean said.
Roberson thinks otherwise.
“I can’t see why that would happen,” he said. “All people would have to do is go to the next county. Why would a city want to give up the sales tax from this?”
McLean said she is also concerned the market will be oversaturated with growers and dispensaries.
“In Utah, they have a limit on how many dispensaries there can be and I like that idea, even though you do run into the free-market question,” she said.
It’s another aspect of free-market influences on a medical marijuana program that concerns Karriem.
Because marijuana is a Schedule 1 narcotic, it is not covered by private health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare.
“It concerns me that poor people may not have access to medical marijuana,” he said. “I would hope that the program would do something to make it affordable and make the business side so that ordinary Mississippians can be a part of the industry.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]