Bobby HARRISON

Approval of medical marijuana on Nov. 3 by Mississippi voters, based at least on polling, seems like a lead-pipe cinch.

A poll conducted by Millsaps College and Mississippi-based Chism Strategies in 2019 placed support for legalizing medical marijuana at 67 percent to 27 percent. In today’s polarized society, it’s difficult to find that level of support for many issues.

Yet some voters, who support the use of marijuana for medical purposes, might have second thoughts on approving the issue at the ballot box.

There will be two medical marijuana proposals on the ballot this November: a citizen-sponsored initiative, and an alternative approved by legislators.

Legislators placed the alternative on the ballot because they argued the citizen-sponsored initiative is too lax, allowing easy access to marijuana. Others would argue the legislators’ proposal is too restrictive and is being placed on the ballot just to confuse voters and guarantee the defeat of both.

Depending on a person’s perspective, both of those arguments have merit. But there is another argument that upon first glance might be considered academic, but in reality creates real world consequences.

If either of the proposals prevail on the Nov. 3 ballot, medical marijuana will be incorporated into the Mississippi Constitution. Never mind the legitimate argument that the Constitution should address major issues, such as our rights and freedoms, and instead focus on the fact that once something gets in the Constitution it is difficult to change or remove.

The only two ways to amend the Mississippi Constitution are by completing the difficult task of gathering the roughly 100,000 signatures of registered voters to place an initiative on the ballot, or by the Legislature approving a proposal by a two-thirds vote of both chambers and then that proposal being approved by voters.

Regardless of a person’s views on medical marijuana, science or other factors might result in a need to make changes related to the issue years from now to make it more or less accessible. If it is enshrined in the Constitution, it would be much more difficult to make those changes.

That is why, in part, that other drugs are not addressed in the Constitution. They are incorporated into general laws that can be changed through simple majority votes of both legislative chambers and by the governor’s signature.

Since June 30, there has been a proposal pending before the Mississippi Senate to pass a general bill to legalize medical marijuana. Because of the late date at which the proposal was introduced, it would take a two-thirds vote of both chambers to pass the proposal.

But if passed, it would be in general law just like other drugs, and like alcohol and tobacco products. Changes could be made to the general law much easier than changes can be made to the Constitution.

Senate Pro Tem Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, who chairs the Rules Committee where the legislation originated, said he has opted not to bring it up for a vote because a consensus has not been developed on whether it could pass.

While the Legislature can reconvene between now and Oct. 5, Kirby said, “I don’t think it is going to come up, but things change up here. I don’t know for sure, but at this point if I was betting, I would say it will not come up.”

The thought when the legislation was filed is that if a bill was passed to approve medical marijuana in general law, there would be less of a chance voters would approve one of the constitutional proposals on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Kirby said having the resolution pending before the Senate could be seen as giving voters confidence that if one of those proposals is not approved, there is a strong chance it will be taken up by the Legislature in the 2021 session.

Another perhaps more realistic view is if medical marijuana is rejected at the ballot box this November, legislators could likely be hesitant to come back behind the voters to approve such a proposal.

Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House minority leader, said he understands the arguments against placing marijuana in the Constitution and agrees with them, but to him those arguments are still not persuadable.

He said he supports the decriminalization of marijuana because “it has provided a vehicle for people to be locked up more than they should be,” and approving medical marijuana is “a first step.”

The Legislature has had years to act on legalizing medical marijuana as support has grown, “and we didn’t, so this is where we find ourselves,” Johnson said.

In effect, the choice is placing medical marijuana in the Constitution, or it very likely not being approved for years to come.

That choice could be a tough one for many voters.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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