Mississippi Supreme Court overturns Medical Marijuana initiative

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JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – The Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday overturned a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved last fall.

Six justices ruled that the medical marijuana initiative is void because the state’s initiative process is outdated. Three justices dissented.

Court documents stated, “Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of
section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

The justices heard arguments in April 2021 for a lawsuit that challenged the state initiative process and seeks to block development of a medical marijuana program. The lawsuit was filed by Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler. It argued the state’s initiative process is outdated and Initiative 65 should not have been on the ballot.

Voters in November 2020 overwhelmingly approved Initiative 65, which requires the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) to establish a medical marijuana program by the middle of this year.

To get Initiative 65 on the statewide ballot, organizers gathered signatures from the five congressional districts that Mississippi used during the 1990s. They did that based on legal advice issued years ago by the state attorney general’s office.

The Mississippi Constitution says petitioners must gather an equal number of signatures from five congressional districts. The state dropped from five congressional districts to four after the 2000 Census, but the constitution’s language about initiatives was not updated. Butler’s lawsuit argued that this creates a mathematical impossibility with four districts because the constitution still specifies that no more than one-fifth of the signatures may come from any single district.

In papers filed Dec. 28 and in oral arguments before the state Supreme Court on April 14, state attorneys said Mississippi has two sets of congressional districts — one set used for congressional elections and one set used for other purposes.

An attorney for Butler argued that the only purpose of a congressional district is to have geographical boundaries for electing U.S. House members.

Chief Justice Michael Randolph said during the April 14 hearing that seven bills have been filed over the years to update Mississippi’s initiative process to remove confusion about signatures coming from old or new congressional districts, and legislators have not made the change.

During the legislative session that ended in April, the Senate tried to create rules for a state medical marijuana program, but the House defeated the effort. Republican Sen. Kevin Blackwell of DeSoto County said the proposal was a backstop to have a program in place in case the Supreme Court agrees with Butler and invalidates Initiative 65. But supporters of Initiative 65 balked at the Senate’s proposal, saying they saw it as an attempt to usurp the will of the voters.

The Secretary of State’s Office is in the process of reviewing the ruling.

Supporters of the initiative reacted to the decision on Friday.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” said Ken Newburger, Executive Director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association. “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right. It’s a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn’t matter.”

Leaders with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) said the agency will stop all development of a medical marijuana program at this time.

“However, the agency has certainly learned a lot in the process of putting together a successful medical marijuana program, and we stand ready to help the legislature if it creates a statutory program,” said Liz Sharlot, director of the Office of Communications for MSDH.

Click here to read the full ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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