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Should Medical Marijuana become legal in Mississippi?

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A pedestrian walks by a medical marijuana dispensary in California.
AP Photo

Mississippi could become the 35th state to legalize medical marijuana. Voters will get to decide next Tuesday. There are two proposals on the November ballot: Initiative 65 and Alternative 65A.

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Angie Calhoun
Angie Calhoun

Angie Calhoun of Puckett says her son, Austin, had been a healthy teen until he began suffering seizures, severe joint pain, and chronic nausea and vomiting.

"I recall one morning walking into Austin's bedroom to give him his medicines," said Calhoun.

"And as I paused by his bedside, I looked at him lying there and I thought to myself 'my son looks like a skeleton with a sheet over his body.'"

After 18 months, 17 prescriptions, and seeing almost 20 doctors, Calhoun says eventually, her son moved out of state so he could use medical marijuana. She says it has since restored his health and quality of life.

"For Austin, medical marijuana worked. It subsided the horrible effects of the debilitating medical conditions. I remember thinking to myself after he had used medical marijuana 'this seems like my son.' My happy vibrant son again," said Calhoun.

"And that was truly a blessing."

Initiative 65 is one of two proposals on the ballot. It would legalize medical marijuana to treat 22 qualifying debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease. And other conditions can be later added.

"My son looks like a skeleton with a sheet over his body."

"Me and my husband, when this initiative came out or when the proposal came out, we went door-to-door with my three-year-old and my four-year-old in his St. Andrews School uniform asking people to sign this petition," said Jacqueline Rudder of Madison County.

She's speaking in favor of Initiative 65 at the fifth and final public hearing sponsored by the Secretary of State's Office. Hearings, like this one in Jackson, are required by law in each of the old congressional districts.

"And can I tell you nine out of ten people signed that petition? They believe that people should have access to this medication if they are sick. We want our physicians to have choices in treating us," said Rudder.

"And we do not want our politicians in our medical care. Get out of the room! It's not their place!"

Part of 65 allows individuals to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at one time sold at an unlimited number of licensed treatment centers statewide. It requires the Mississippi Dept. of Health to implement, administer, and enforce the provisions of this article and to issue rules and regulations.

"We want our physicians to have choices in treating us."

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs says there are medical benefits in marijuana, particularly in the CBD extract of the plant which is therapeutically available in several different products sold statewide. But the concern, he says, is the THC component of marijuana - the extract that makes you "high."

"We know that for teenagers it does really significantly increase risks of schizophrenia and other mental health disorders. It also lowers IQ points. So youth are a very vulnerable group," said Dobbs.

"We also know for pregnant women that there's a real issue. We're doing some studies at the department of health on our discharge data and for 2019 there were 255 babies born to mothers who had cannabis abuse and had adverse effects."

The alternative measure on the ballot, 65A, would restrict smoking marijuana to terminally ill patients. It requires pharmaceutical-grade marijuana products and treatment oversight by licensed physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. The measure limits the number of state-licensed manufacturers of marijuana products and leaves tax rates and possession limits to be set by lawmakers.

"There is interest in having a medical marijuana program, but there's got to be a better way. And I think if we do want to do it we need to look at 65A," said Dobbs.

"And as the director of the state health department if we pass 65A I promise that I will work to make sure it's a successful program."

"We know that for teenagers it does really significantly increase risks of schizophrenia and other mental health disorders."

Sample Ballot

Mississippi's initiative law allows voters to amend the state's Constitution for issues not addressed by the Legislature. Supporters of 65 say lawmakers have denied 20 or more legislative bills to legalize medical marijuana. It was only after Initiative 65 made it to the ballot that the Legislature passed medical marijuana legislation, Alternative 65A. If either measure prevails, marijuana will become part of the Mississippi Constitution - where no other drug is addressed.

Byram Police Chief Luke Thompson with the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police says he believes changing the Constitution is a bad idea.

"When you keep it in the Legislature, if they have a challenge or something comes up and it's not working, in the Legislature you can change it the next year. If you change the Constitution of our state to what this initiative wants to do, there's no changing it without another constitutional amendment," said Thompson.

"So once you get it passed, you're not going to be able to do anything with it after that."

"So once you get it passed, you're not going to be able to do anything with it after that."

For an initiative to pass, it requires a certain threshold of votes. At least 40% of everyone who votes in the general election must vote on the issue and of those votes, a simple majority is required in order for it to pass.

Other drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products are incorporated into general laws that can be changed through a simple majority votes of both legislative chambers and by the governor's signature.

Numerous polls in recent years have shown a majority of Mississippians support legalizing the medical use of marijuana. A more recent poll reveals there's more than 80 percent. And by legalizing medical marijuana in Mississippi, Angie Calhoun says it'll allow her only child to come back home.

For more on legalizing medical marijuana in Mississippi, watch a special edition of @Issue Mississippi's Debate Over Legalizing Medical Marijuana. You'll get to hear arguments for and against both measures on the November ballot.

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