Dana McLean held up a printed copy of the state’s 450-page medical marijuana law on Thursday for the Columbus City Council to see.
Two-thirds majority of Mississippians marked yes on their ballot to legalize medical marijuana in 2020. After the state supreme court struck down the ballot initiative on a technicality, the District 39 representative co-authored a bill she viewed as a “conservative approach” to a statewide program that would treat marijuana like “true medicine.”
The bill that passed, however, even with its hundreds of pages of stipulations, is not what McLean (R, Columbus) had envisioned.
“In my opinion, it’s pretty wide open. … I’ve heard a lot of arguments, ‘Well the people voted for it. What’s the problem?’ The people didn’t really know what they were voting for,” she told the council at its work session in City Hall. “… I’ve heard from numerous constituents who said, ‘I voted for it, but I didn’t vote for this. I didn’t vote for smoking it or having it in schools.’”
McLean, who voted against the bill, has become the latest civic leader to call on Columbus to opt out of the state’s medical marijuana program, at least temporarily. Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat made a similar plea to the council at its April 19 meeting.
Local governments have until Tuesday to opt out. Otherwise they are enrolled automatically.
On Thursday, McLean noted cities like Madison, Pontotoc and, closer to home, Caledonia have opted out as a “wait and see” approach for how the new law will affect other communities.
“We can always opt back in, but once we don’t opt out, we’re done,” she told the council.
The law allows growhouses, dispensaries and processing facilities to set up shop in cities and counties that don’t opt out.
Patients suffering from qualifying conditions can obtain a medical marijuana card from a doctor, which gives the patient access to a strictly limited amount of marijuana products — such as cigarettes, oils or gummies.
McLean said she had hoped the law would not allow for smoking marijuana and would only allow access to “compassion care” for patients suffering from serious conditions like cancer.
“Now we have those with (post-traumatic stress disorder) and anxiety (who can get cards),” she said. “There are a lot of us out there with PTSD depending on what you’ve gone through in your life. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have marijuana cigarettes every day.”
She also expressed concern that dispensaries, not pharmacies, would be doling out marijuana products, as well as fears of people misusing marijuana cards.
“This is not a pharmacist,” McLean said. “This isn’t someone who has had any medical training whatsoever. They’ve been to a workshop.
“Once people start getting their medical marijuana cards, they can go to the dispensary, get their quota … and then they can sell it,” she added. “That’s going to happen. We’re going to have kids that are using their parents’ card.”
She also insisted several times that teachers would be administering gummies to students in the schools, which isn’t true. According to the law, as well as a statement Labat gave The Dispatch on Thursday through CMSD public information officer Mary Pollitz, only nurses are allowed to administer any medication to students at school, and marijuana products will be no exception.
McLean addressed fears that crime would rise once medical marijuana arrived in Columbus, and she lamented what may happen to the community aesthetic.
“I’m not looking forward to driving down (Highway) 45 and seeing billboards that advertise medical marijuana,” she said. “I’m not in favor of walking down Main Street, and looking in our beautiful historic area, and seeing pot shops up and down the street. … I would urge the council to seriously think about how we want our community to look in the future.”
Beard, Turnage push back
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard acknowledged McLean’s concerns but adamantly disagreed with several of her points.
He noted the council can limit what zones marijuana facilities can set up shop and will require those business owners to appear before the planning commission before approving their privilege license.
Grow houses, specifically, will be enclosed and well protected, Beard said.
“It’s not just going to be grown outside where my cousins, brothers, my mom or grandma can just, ‘Oh my God! There’s some marijuana. Let’s go snatch it.’ It’s not like cotton. … This will be in an enclosed area.”
Beard said the access to medical marijuana would, like McLean had hoped, help people with serious conditions — cancer, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s and autism, to name a few. Medical malpractice is not something the city can regulate, he said.
“If the doctor gives Johnny Blow a medical marijuana card, and the doctor knows that Johnny Blow does not need it, that’s not our fault,” he said.
As for children having access to marijuana at school or elsewhere, Beard said they already have that kind of access to other drugs.
“What’s the difference of them getting a pill for ADHD?” he asked. “In the Black community people say that’s nothing, but in the medical community all kids have ADHD and are popping pills in their mouths.”
Beyond that, Beard said the city cannot ignore the revenue opportunities the law can generate from property and sales taxes.
McClean pushed back at that argument.
“We don’t want this to be money driven,” she said. “We want to protect our children. … I think it’s more important that we have a safe community.”
City Attorney Jeff Turnage, however, noted that even if the city opted out, doctors could still issue marijuana cards to patients in Columbus, and those patients could get the drugs in surrounding cities, like Starkville, or even parts of rural Lowndes County since those entities are not opting out.
He also stressed to McLean the law “severely limits” advertising, which should allay some of the representative’s concerns about marijuana billboards popping up all over the city.
Council seems to support enrolling
Despite pleas from McLean and Labat, there doesn’t seem to be enough of an appetite on the council to support a vote to opt out, even temporarily.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, who did not attend Thursday’s work session, expressed serious concerns at the April 19 council meeting, but several of his colleagues, including Mayor Keith Gaskin, support enrolling.
Rusty Greene, who represents Ward 3, told The Dispatch after Thursday’s work session he still has concerns about how it will impact the city but “we have to trust we can work that stuff out.”
“I think it’s here,” he said. “Other towns around us are opting in. If we opt out, that’s not going to solve our problem.”
Gaskin said he understands arguments to opt out, but he believes the consensus from the community is for the city to enroll. As of now, a vote to opt out is not on the council’s agenda for Tuesday, he said.
“The economic impact has to be a consideration, especially when you look at the state of the city’s finances,” Gaskin said. “You don’t want that to be a driving force, but you have to look at the economic development opportunities.”
Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco, meanwhile, is “torn.” She said she is fielding calls from constituents expressing support and concern for the program.
“I really believe in the medicinal value of it,” she told The Dispatch. “But I also believe we’re going to see a lot of people take advantage of the opportunity to get high.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.