Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Almost 40 years of covering Mississippi government and politics suggests to me that an election year isn’t the best time to enact something as controversial as legalizing medical marijuana.

To be sure, medical marijuana is already legal in Mississippi in the narrowest of senses and has been since 2014. Legal, yes. Available? No. As I’ve noted before on this topic, conservative Republican Gov. Phil Bryant – a no-nonsense former deputy sheriff – signed Mississippi’s very narrow current medical marijuana bill into law in 2014 with help from some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers.

The namesake of the bill – Harper Grace’s Law – was Harper Grace Durval, a child enduring Dravet Syndrome, a rare and particularly difficult form of epilepsy.Harper Grace’s Law was supposed to allow the Durval child and other children like her to obtain treatment with cannabis oil at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. But due to federal bureaucratic roadblocks at federally-funded UMMC beyond state control, not one child has received cannabis oil treatment under the 2014 law.

Past medical marijuana legalization efforts in Mississippi have had zero to do with legalizing recreational marijuana. Nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia – including Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington – have legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana. Thirty-three states have legalized the use of medical marijuana – including Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana – in variable amounts under variable conditions.

Other states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, have laws on the books permitting the use of medical marijuana for severe epileptic conditions, but the drug remains practically and legally unobtainable due to red tape, conflicting state and federal laws, and legal log-rolling from healthcare professionals and law enforcement agencies.

Election year or not, the majority of Mississippi voters are extremely unlikely entertain the notion of wide-open legalization of recreational marijuana. Remember, this is a state in which there are still a number of cities and counties that are “dry” on beer and light wine or on alcoholic beverages.

The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus held hearings this week on Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel’s Mississippi Medical Marijuana Act of 2019. That bill, I predict, is not destined to pass this year. It’s election year. Neither are other 2019 medical marijuana bills introduced this year likely to pass for the same reason.

But the ongoing more broad-cased referendum effort called Medical Marijuana 2020 in Mississippi has a fighting chance. The proposed referendum petitioners must collect at least 86,185 valid signatures by Sept. 6, 2019. This is a serious effort, well-focused and well-financed. The group proposes to “make medical marijuana available to Mississippians who have debilitating medical conditions.”

Who would qualify for medical marijuana under this proposed law? Those with “cancer, epilepsy and other seizures, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, HIV, AIDS, chronic pain, ALS, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, sickle-cell anemia, autism with aggressive or self-injurious behavior, spinal cord injuries, and similar diseases.”

Who would decide who can get medical marijuana? “Physicians will have the option to certify the use of medical marijuana as part of a treatment after examining the patient. With a licensed physician’s certification, a patient would obtain an identification card from the Mississippi Department of Health and medical marijuana from a regulated treatment center, which will be the only place medical marijuana would be available.”

Medical Marijuana 2020 doesn’t have a fighting chance next year because of old hippies – it has a chance because of grandparents and parents of children with epilepsy or autism, spouses of cancer patients, multiple sclerosis sufferers and those whose loved ones experience seizures.