States across the South are making way for more patients to legally use medical marijuana. Alabama recently passed a law legalizing it and Louisiana is expanding its medical marijuana program. Today, Mississippi was slated to join the pack, but the Supreme Court overturned the voters’ decision.
How are patients responding and what might lawmakers do next?
Last November, 74% of Mississippi voters approved adopting a medical marijuana program. For some, like 25-year-old Austin Calhoun, the decision felt like a ticket back home.
Calhoun, a Puckett, Mississippi native, spent most of his senior year of high school bedridden due to Lyme disease. He met with 20 local doctors to try and find relief for his symptoms, but eventually made the decision to move to Colorado in 2015 so he could get a medical marijuana prescription to help keep his ailments — like seizures, chronic nausea and vomiting and arthritis — under control.
“I started making arrangements to sell my house,” Calhoun said after hearing about the voters’ decision. “Around May, I decided it was time for me to just come back home and be with my family.”
In May, however, Mississippi’s State Supreme Court struck down the voter-approved medical marijuana initiative, ruling the program void due to the state’s initiative process being outdated.
“[It] has kind of thrown everybody for a loop,” Calhoun said.
Lawmakers are hopeful to have a new bill drafted by the end of summer. Until then, Calhoun says he is staying in Mississippi to advocate for its passage, even if it means risking his own health. He has had to stop using medical marijuana, and he has already lost at least 15 pounds in the last month since moving back home.
“I want to do my part to, you know, help out as much as I humanly can and make sure that the people of Mississippi get something as close to what they voted for,” said Calhoun. “I'm not running away anymore. I want to be here for whenever it does happen.”
"We want Mississippi to get it right."
Thirty-seven states currently have legalized medical marijuana. Alabama created its first program in May. Just law week, Louisiana expanded its program to include smokable pot starting in January.
But those two states would not have had the momentum to pass their legislation if not for Mississippi’s efforts, Ken Newburger, the executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association said.
“I actually think that the case became easier in Alabama and Louisiana because of Mississippi,” Newburger said. “I think we're leading the south, actually. I think we had a small hiccup because of our Supreme Court, but I think that the people of Mississippi spoke loud and they spoke first.”
This type of regional domino effect isn’t uncommon. States often study each others’ legislation and decide what may work best for them. But while Mississippi may have spoken first, the state is now back at square one.
A Senate committee has started holding a series of hearings with a goal of crafting new legislation to create a medical marijuana program. During the first hearing of the summer, Republican Senator Kevin Blackwell, who’s drafting the bill, says he believes Mississippi has an opportunity to lead the nation in medical marijuana legislation by taking lessons from what the other 37 states have passed into law.
If lawmakers are able to draft new legislation this summer, the hope is for a special session in the fall. But it will take even more time for patients to have medical marijuana cards and products in their hands.
“We want to do this right. At this stage we’re going to be the 38th state to have a medical marijuana bill,” Blackwell said. “Recently, Alabama passed their bill, and there's some things in it to me that are attractive. And there are some things that are not appealing.”