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Mississippi House and Senate lawmakers have reached an agreement to send a bill to legalize medical marijuana to the governor’s office this week. Following Senate action on Tuesday, the bill will now go to a bicameral conference committee to finalize the details of the legislation, with votes in both houses for final passage expected on Wednesday.

Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R) and Rep. Lee Yancey (R) discussed the deal at a news conference on Tuesday. There was an opportunity for an approval vote in the Senate — where the bill originated and was introduced in the House this month and later amended — but following rejection by the Mississippi Municipal League (MML) on a House change related to zoning rules for cannabis businesses, the Senate voted against approval and will instead move the measure to the conference.

This comes more than 14 months after Mississippi voters passed a move to legalize medical cannabis, a law that the state Supreme Court later struck down. And the bill that is being fine-tuned again is the result of months of negotiations and last-minute changes to a nearly 450-page bill.

“It’s been a long journey, and it’s nice to be in a place where everyone agrees,” Yancey said Tuesday. “It looks like we will finally be able to provide relief to people with debilitating conditions who need it so badly. Medical cannabis will now be an option for them once we sign and send the conference report to the governor.

While the overarching bill will remain largely the same as an earlier version passed by the Senate this month, recent House amendments have reduced the overall monthly amount of cannabis products available to patients, removed the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce from oversight of the industry and expanded zoning allowances for cannabis growers and processors.

Only the provision on zoning allowances will change. Instead of allowing growers and processors to operate in commercially zoned areas, as would have been allowed under the bill as amended by the House, they would only be allowed in industrial or agricultural zones. , satisfactory MML.

Assuming the conference goes as planned, the Legislature will then formally forward the bill to Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who then has five days, excluding Sunday, to either sign it or send it back with objections. The Senate and House, however, passed the legislation with non-veto majorities. If the governor takes no action by the deadline, the bill will become law without his signature.

Reeves has been wary of legalization in recent months, at one point threatening to veto a bill if it made it to his office. Since then, supporters of the legislature have worked to balance the voter-approved initiative’s more permissive proposals against the governor’s calls for tougher restrictions.

The governor said last week that the measure had gotten “better” with each revision and correctly predicted further amendments by the House.

Provided the bill becomes law, dispensaries would be licensed about six months later, meaning Mississippi’s medical cannabis program could be up and running, at least in limited form, by the end of the year. year.

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The law project, SB 2095, draws heavily on provisions negotiated by lawmakers in the second half of last year, as legislative leaders prepared a bill for a special session scheduled for last summer that the governor never called. Proponents say the lengthy proposal represents a happy medium between the more permissive plan approved by voters and the narrower approach favored by Reeves and some lawmakers.

The legislation as amended by the House would allow patients with about two dozen eligible medical conditions to purchase the equivalent of 3.5 grams of marijuana (or 1 gram of cannabis concentrate) per day, with a monthly limit maximum of 3 oz. Voters approved a 5-ounce monthly limit in 2020, and the bill as passed by the Senate last week would have allowed 3.5 ounces, but that was further reduced by the House earlier this week.

Eligible conditions under the bill include cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis, Alzheimer’s disease, sickle cell disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, neuropathy, spinal cord disease or serious injury as well as chronic medical conditions or treatments that produce severe nausea, cachexia or weight loss, seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms or chronic pain.

Other conditions could be added later by the regulators via a petition. State-issued patient registration cards would cost $25, though some people may qualify for a lower price.

Registered patients would be subject to purchase limits that would limit them to no more than one “medical cannabis equivalence unit” per day, which the bill defines as 3.5 grams of cannabis flower, a gram of concentrate or up to 100 milligrams of infused THC. some products. While those limits are significantly lower than those in most states where cannabis is legal for medical patients, Reeves said last year that the program should only allow half those amounts.

Patients or caregivers would be prohibited from growing their own cannabis under the proposal. Products from state-licensed companies, meanwhile, would be limited to 30% THC for cannabis flower and 60% for concentrates.

There would be no limit to the number of businesses allowed under the plan.

Medical marijuana would be taxed at a wholesale rate of 5%, and purchases would also be subject to state sales tax.

Although smoking and vaping cannabis is permitted for patients, both would be illegal in public and in motor vehicles. It would still be a crime for patients to drive under the influence.

The legislation would task the Mississippi Department of Health with overseeing the new industry and creating a nine-member advisory committee to make recommendations on issues such as patient access and industry safety.

Previous versions of the bill also gave the State Agriculture and Commerce Commission regulatory duties, but the House removed the agency through an amendment. Commissioner Andy Gipson, who for months had pushed back on the plan, thanked House Speaker Philip Gunn and other lawmakers for making the change in a statement released last week.

“The best place for a truly medical agenda is under the Department of Health, which reflects the will of Initiative 65 voters,” Gipson said, according to SuperTalk Mississippi. “This change is good policy for Mississippi agriculture and allows us to focus on our core mission. It’s also good policy for Mississippi taxpayers because it allows for greater efficiency in the use of funds by reducing the number of agencies involved in the program.

Licensing of cannabis businesses other than dispensaries — including cultivators, processors, transporters, disposal entities, testing labs and research facilities — would begin 120 days after the bill passes. of law, with the first licenses issued about a month later. The dispensary licensing process would start 150 days after the switch, with the first licenses coming a month later.

Cannabis businesses may need to obtain local permission to operate, and municipalities may enact zoning and land use restrictions. In general, local governments could not outright ban medical cannabis businesses or “render their operation impractical,” the bill says, but a separate provision would allow local governments to opt out of the program entirely within 90 days. following the passage of the bill. In such cases, citizens could then request that the matter be put to a vote.

Mississippi voters decisively approved a sweeping legalization initiative in November 2020. The state Supreme Court struck down the measure on procedural grounds last May, simultaneously removing the entire initiative process from the ‘State.

For much of the past year, it appeared lawmakers were poised to pass a medical marijuana bill in a special legislative session, but the governor ultimately decided not to call the special session after reaching an impasse with lawmakers. Those who supported legalization said at the time that the blame for the failure lay with Reeves.

Later that month, Reeves dodged questions from patient advocates about why he hadn’t called the special session. Then in late December, he said on social media that he had “repeatedly told members of the Legislative Assembly that I am ready to sign a bill that is really medical marijuana,” but stressed that there should be ‘reasonable restrictions’.

Last week, before the House vote, Yancey, who chairs the House Drug Policy Committee and works on legislation with Blackwell, said he never imagined he would be able to legalize cannabis. But he said he was working to ensure the bill was focused on getting drugs to patients, not on the path to a recreational program, as critics have claimed.

“When I got involved with this bill, I said, ‘How can we build a wall around this program so that the people who benefit from this are the people who need it the most, and only the people who need it? need the most? said Yancey. “It’s not for everyone on the street. It is not for a group of children. It’s to hurt people with debilitating conditions.

A poll released in June found that a majority of Mississippi voters support the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, with 63% saying they want the legislature to pass a bill mirroring the ballot measure that was overturned by the Supreme Court.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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