Mississippi leaders told voters not to legalize medical marijuana. They voted for it anyway.
Ahead of Election Day, the Hinds County Circuit Court issued personal protective equipment in Jackson, Miss., Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Wochit
Politicians didn’t want it. Leaders in medicine, law enforcement and religion warned against it. Conservative talk radio railed against it. The Legislature, after years of inaction, offered an alternative.
Voters bucked that advice. They easily passed Initiative 65 on Nov. 3, amending the constitution and legalizing medical marijuana.
A program overseen by the state Department of Health will allow Mississippians with one of at least 22 medical conditions to buy the drug as early as August 2021.
Polling in recent years had indicated that Mississippians would support legalizing medical marijuana, but this election cycle exposed a chasm between Mississippi voters and leaders when it comes to marijuana.
“Most non-stoners say we should be careful & deliberate,” Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted days before the election. “Initiative 65 is the opposite. Experts say it would mean the most liberal weed rules in the U.S.! Pot shops everywhere — no local authority.”
There are good folks on all sides of the medical marijuana debate. Most non-stoners say we should be careful & deliberate. Initiative 65 is the opposite. Experts say it would mean the most liberal weed rules in the US! Pot shops everywhere—no local authority. Voting against both.
Jim Perry, a businessman who was appointed to the State Health Board by former Gov. Phil Bryant, went on Supertalk radio days before the election and listed some of the organizations coming together to oppose Initiative 65.
“It’s not just the medical associations,” Perry said. “It’s the oncology societies, the pediatricians. It’s every medical society that I’ve never heard of has come out and said this is the wrong way; to the Realtors, to the municipal league, to the sheriffs, to the police chiefs, to the Baptist convention, on and on. It’s having an effect. It’s getting the word out.”
Apparently, it wasn’t enough.
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Unofficial results from the Nov. 3 election show that nearly 7 in 10 Mississippi voters supported legalizing medical marijuana and even greater share of voters rejected the Legislature’s alternative.
Kevin Lavine, a professor at Jackson State University, said he knows why.
Lavine said he spent the 90s as a narcotics officer for the Jackson Police Department, racking up awards as he busted users for small amounts of drugs like marijuana.
“If you had one joint, we were taking you,” Lavine said. “I was a drug go-getter . I was a drug eradicator.”
Then Lavine said he went to college to study criminology and learned about different approaches to solving drug crime. Lavine said his thinking evolved. A harsh approach to marijuana doesn’t solve a community’s drug problem, he said. According to Lavine, his research shows it creates problems similar to what happened during alcohol prohibition — illegal markets and violence.
Meanwhile, public opinion on legal drugs like opioids has shifted and some folks view marijuana more favorably, he said.
Lavine said his son has sickle cell anemia, a painful disease that can feel like glass shards are moving through a person’s body.
“I was praying for it for my son,” Lavine said of passing Initiative 65. “Why would I be against it if it could help my son? . It’s more of a recognition of the medical use, and maybe some of those legislators, it hasn’t hit their family yet.”
The reason Initiative 65 passed — despite the warnings of top leaders — is that it’s a personal issue, Lavine said, not a political issue, and many Mississippians have moved beyond the politics of medical marijuana.
“What’s happening here in Mississippi is people are starting to recognize the benefits of marijuana (for) medicinal use,” Lavine said. “Politics and law enforcement are both the same — rigid and resistant to change.”
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‘Not a political issue’
Jamie Grantham is the communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care, which led the legalization effort.
“This is not a political issue. It’s just not,” Grantham said. “This is a very special unique issue that people have tried to politicize and they should really be ashamed of themselves because it’s not political.”
Mississippians for Compassionate Care gathered certified signatures from more than 105,000 registered voters to put Initiative 65 on the ballot. The group also raised more than $5 million in 2019 and 2020, including numerous large donations from people and political organizations in and outside of Mississippi, according to the most recent finance documents. The campaign took on loans of $800,000 from both BancCorp South and First Commercial Bank, according to campaign finance records.
Bomgar, a businessman, appeared to be the biggest single donor to the cause, at $900,000. When asked if he had any plans to invest in what will be Mississippi’s medical marijuana industry, Bomgar said he did not own any marijuana-related stocks or companies.
“My whole focus has been winning this campaign so that doctors and their patients would have access to medical marijuana,” Bomgar wrote. “Before we can even think about business opportunities we have to get rules and regulations adopted by the Board of Health to ensure safe and secure treatment centers and an open, free, and competitive environment for businesses who want to enter this market. That is my next focus.”
Bomgar was a frequent target for Paul Gallo, who hosts a show on Supertalk. In the weeks leading up to the election, Gallo interviewed several opponents of Initiative 65, including top medical officials and politicians.
“Look, if you and I had $6 million and marketing experts out there, we could make ‘Whistler’s Mother’ a sex symbol,” Gallo said, referencing the 19th century painting of a gray-haired woman sitting in a long black dress.
Gallo criticized Initiative 65 for a variety of reasons, including that it was too friendly for the medical marijuana industry.
“Man, you talk about a sweetheart deal,” Gallo said. “I don’t think there are people in the mafia that could have a cut a better deal.”
Grantham said it was reasonable that people outside the state would be interested in passing Initiative 65.
“If Mississippi can pass medical marijuana, so can Alabama, so can Tennessee,” she said. “I think it helps other states be able to get on board with that.”
She also said that the medical marijuana industry will pay taxes, create jobs and bring opportunity for small business owners.
“It produces jobs and an industry right there in the state because the medical marijuana has be grown here in Mississippi,” Grantham said. “It’s going to create jobs for sure.”
The passage of Initiative 65 is already having an effect. Within days of the election, eight new business names containing the word “marijuana” were registered with the Mississippi Secretary of State.
For Grantham, she said she wasn’t motivated by politics or business, but religion.
In her bible, Grantham has underlined and highlighted several passages in Genesis where God instructs mankind to use what he has created, including the plants.
“God gets the glory for this,” Grantham said of passing Initiative 65. “He has provided and blessed and gone before us this whole journey . This is his plant and he made people and he cares that people are suffering.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated campaign finance records of Mississippians For Compassionate Care. BancCorp South and First Commercial Bank each loaned the campaign $800,000.
Leaders in politics, religion, law enforcement and medicine warned against legalizing medical marijuana. So how did it pass so easily?