Whether Mississippi will have a medical cannabis program will rest with the state Supreme Court, which is weighing a challenge to the voter-approved ballot measure, if the Senate’s effort fails.
By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
After bitter debate—and accusations of lawmakers lying and profiteering—the state House killed a Senate bill aimed at creating a legislative alternative to the Mississippi medical marijuana program voters overwhelmingly added to the state constitution in November.
But the Senate on Wednesday evening tried a hail Mary on the marijuana bill. Lawmakers inserted the Senate measure’s language into a House bill dealing with research on cannabidiol, or CBD oil, for patients with seizures or other illness, known as “Harper Grace’s Law.” The amended bill — which could revive the Senate’s medical marijuana proposal—passed 29-19, with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann overruling objections that the amendment improperly altered an unrelated bill.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, author of the medical marijuana bill, offered the amendment as a chance to “give (the House) a second bite at the apple.”
If the House doesn’t go for the last-ditch effort, the question of whether Mississippi will have a medical marijuana program anytime soon rests with the Supreme Court, which is set to hear next month a challenge to the voter-passed Initiative 65 marijuana program.
After multiple parliamentary challenges to Senate Bill 2765 ground business to a halt in the House on Wednesday—the deadline for its passage by that chamber—Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, motioned the bill to be “laid on the table.” With the House later adjourning for the day, this killed the measure. Many lawmakers applauded when Lamar made the motion. The bill had brought hours of heated debate in the Senate, and its passage in the House, facing bipartisan opposition, was in doubt even after House amendments.
Before the bill was killed, Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, an ardent supporter and financial backer of Initiative 65, accused Lamar of running “a ruse” and said the bill was aimed at “screwing over everybody who voted for Initiative 65.” Bomgar in committee last week had successfully gutted the Senate bill with an amendment to substitute the language voters passed with Initiative 65. But he claimed this week that his amendment was improperly altered before the bill came to the floor and on Wednesday claimed Lamar planned to revert back to the Senate version all along after Lamar tried to offer a new amendment.
“The people have spoken on this,” Bomgar said. “The Supreme Court will rule in a month. There’s no reason for this [bill]… Nobody believes this will turn into anything approaching Initiative 65.”
Lamar responded: “The gentleman just lied to everybody in this body.” He said he was trying to match the bill’s language as close as possible to Initiative 65 and keep the measure alive to have further negotiations with the Senate.
“This baby has fallen in my lap, and I’m just rocking it,” Lamar said. After multiple parliamentary challenges on the bill and amendments, Lamar made the motion that killed the measure.
Rep. Jill Ford, R-Madison, a vocal opponent of Initiative 65, during floor debate called for an Ethics Committee investigation into whether any House members have improper financial interests in the potential medical marijuana industry. She was told she would have to file such a request in writing, which she later did, citing legislative rules and a provision in the state constitution that elected officials cannot personally benefit from their official actions. Ford would not say at whom her claims were aimed.
“I’d rather not say,” Ford said. “There are possibly people in here who could financially benefit, and I was to make sure we as a body are following the rules and law when we’re voting on bills and amendments.”
Bomgar declined comment or interview this week, as he has done for about a year.
Senate Bill 2765 was originally a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program voters overwhelmingly approved in November with Ballot Initiative 65, which is now being challenged in the state Supreme Court. The bill passed the Senate only after much wrangling and a “do-over” vote in the wee hours of the morning in mid-February. It was initially drafted to create its own medical marijuana program, regardless of whether the court upholds the voter-passed program. But it was amended during heated Senate debate to take effect only if the courts strike down the voter-passed program.
The legislative move had many Initiative 65 supporters crying foul, claiming the Legislature was trying to usurp the will of the voters. After lawmakers failed for years to approve use of medical marijuana despite a groundswell of public support, voters took matters in hand in November with Initiative 65.
A key difference between Initiative 65 and the Senate’s proposal is that under the voter-passed initiative, the Legislature cannot tax marijuana sales, nor spend any money the program generates. The Senate proposal would levy taxes and fees on cultivators, dispensaries and patients that some lawmakers estimated could bring hundreds of millions of dollars into state coffers.
Hosemann on Wednesday evening said he doesn’t understand why many proponents of Initiative 65 are opposing the Senate efforts. He said if the high court strikes down Initiative 65, and the Senate backup is not passed, there will not be a state medical marijuana program in the short run. He vowed “100 percent” that the Senate plans to keep the “trigger” language in the bill, that the legislative marijuana program would be enacted only if the court strikes down the voter-approved one.
“Our senators believe that the people in Mississippi voted on medical marijuana and they deserve to have that…a backup plan,” Hosemann said. He called opposition saying lawmakers are trying to usurp the will of the voters or greatly alter what they passed, “subterfuge.”
Photo courtesy of M a n u e l.