Lawmakers reached a deal on key provisions such as which agencies should be responsible for regulating the medical cannabis market.
By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
Legislative negotiators and leaders have agreed on a draft of medical marijuana legislation, and are anticipated to ask Gov. Tate Reeves (R) as early as Friday to call the Legislature into special session, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday.
Legislative leaders on Thursday released some details of the proposal—which had been kept close to the vest for months—such as that cities and counties will be allowed to “opt out” of having medical marijuana cultivation or dispensaries, although local voters can override this.
Negotiations have dragged on throughout the summer on crafting a medical marijuana program to replace one passed by Mississippi voters in November but shot down in May by the state Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality.
House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) in a Thursday interview on a Supertalk radio show said he believed the House and Senate leadership and negotiators are “in agreement” on a draft bill, and he believes both chambers have the votes to pass such a measure. He said he planned to get together with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R), then barring any last minute glitches “inform the governor we are ready.”
Other sources close to the negotiations on Thursday told Mississippi Today they anticipate that request to the governor would happen as soon as Friday. Reeves has sole authority to call lawmakers into special session, and would set the date and parameters of a special session. Although legislative leaders have expressed interest in dealing with COVID-19 and other issues in a special session, Reeves has appeared unwilling but said he would call a session for medical marijuana, pending lawmakers are in agreement and he agrees with the measure.
Gunn in his radio interview on Thursday gave some particulars of the bill, but said “don’t hold me to it” and deferred to Rep. Lee Yancey, (R), the lead House negotiator on the measure. Yancey has worked with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, (R), the lead Senate negotiator. Blackwell could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
Yancey gave Mississippi Today some highlights of the draft bill, which would be subject to changes by the full Legislature. They include:
Cities and counties could opt out. Voters could opt back in. City councils or aldermen, or county boards of supervisors, within 60 days of passage of legislation, could opt out from allowing cultivation or dispensing of medical marijuana within their borders. However, voters could gather 1,500 signatures, or signatures of 20 percent of voters, whichever is less, and force a referendum on the issue. If such a referendum to allow it fails, voters could try again in two years, similar to state alcohol referenda. Yancey said that under the draft measure, “Once it’s in, it’s in,” meaning once approved, a locality could not come back and ban it.
“This gives businesses the certainty they need to get started,” Yancey said. “No licenses will be issued the first 60 days after passage for cultivation and processing, and licenses (for cannabis use) and dispensaries wouldn’t start until the 90th day.”
Smoking cannabis would be allowed. There had been debate on whether Mississippi’s program would allow smoking of cannabis by patients, as most states with programs allow, or prohibit it, as Alabama does with its recently approved program.
“There are those who have certain debilitating conditions who need the effects of medical cannabis to take effect immediately,” Yancey said. “Ingesting a gummy or something like that could take 45 minutes to an hour. Whether it’s terrible seizures or pain and suffering or not being able to eat, there are those who need relief as immediately as possible… There are those who look at this from a bias of recreational use, but that’s not apples to apples, not fair. There are people who are suffering, who need the palliative relieve medical cannabis can provide, and our main goal is to allow people who are suffering terrible illnesses to get relief.”
Medical marijuana would be subject to sales tax and an excise. The state’s sales tax, currently at 7 percent, would be levied on medical marijuana, as well as a $15 an ounce excise. Yancey said the goal was to have a 5 percent excise, but that going rates for marijuana vary by potency and product, so the weight-based tax was the easiest way to get near that mark. Weight for edibles and other product would be based on the cannabis weight, not food or other product. Yancey said this tax rate would put Mississippi roughly in the middle of states with legalized medical cannabis.
“The going rate for mid-range (marijuana flower) is about $300 an ounce, so if you do the math, $15 an ounce would be around the 5%,” Yancey said. “If a product sold for lower, you would pay higher than that rate, if sold for more, you would pay less.”
Outdoor growing would not be allowed. Lawmakers during hearings this summer were told by officials from other states that regulating growing and safety of medical marijuana is easier with indoor growing facilities.
State Health Department would be in charge, with Department of Revenue, Agriculture Commission sharing some responsibilities. The Mississippi State Department of Health would oversee the state’s medical marijuana program, but the state’s taxing and agriculture agencies would share some regulatory duties. State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson has told lawmakers he will not participate in regulating medical marijuana because marijuana is still federally illegal. Gipson has threatened to sue if lawmakers try to force him to participate.
Yancey said the proposal would allow Gipson to subcontract growing regulations to someone else.
“For instance, if the Board of Pharmacy said it was interested in regulating the plants—like they do with compounding pharmacies—they could do it,” Yancey said. “In a sense Andy wouldn’t have to do it himself, he could farm it out, no pun intended.”
Preference would be given to in-state companies. Yancey said cultivators would be licensed in tiers—from “micro cultivators” to large ones, based on square footage of canopy space. Micro growers, under 2,000 square feet, would have to be “100 percent Mississippi resident participation.” Larger ones initially would have to have 35 percent Mississippi ownership, but that requirement would be repealed after one year. Yancey said this could help Mississippians be involved in the business, but help the state avoid lawsuits other states have faced from out-of-state growers. Yancey said there would be a similar setup for processors, based on amount of pounds of product they produce.
Potency would be regulated. Yancey said there would be THC potency limits of 30 percent on flower, 60 percent on concentrates and infused products. He said any product above 30 percent THC would have to have a warning label.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.