Mississippi justices toss voter-backed marijuana initiative
BY EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS ASSOCIATED PRESS MAY 15, 2021
Mississippi will remain in the minority of states without a medical marijuana program after the state Supreme Court on Friday overturned an initiative that voters approved last fall — a decision that also limits other citizen-led efforts to put issues on the statewide ballot.
At the heart of the ruling is the fact that initiatives need signatures from five congressional districts to get on the ballot, but because of Mississippi’s stagnant population, the state only has four districts.
Six justices ruled that the medical marijuana initiative is void because the state's initiative process is outdated. Three justices dissented.
The initiative process was added to the Mississippi Constitution in the 1990s as Section 273. It requires petitioners trying to get any initiative on the ballot to gather one-fifth of signatures from each congressional district. Mississippi had five congressional districts at the time that was written. But the state dropped to four districts after the 2000 Census, and language dealing with the initiative process was never updated.
“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress," Justice Josiah Coleman wrote for the majority in the ruling Friday. "To work in today’s reality, it will need amending — something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”
In a strongly worded dissent, Justice James Maxwell wrote that he believes the secretary of state correctly put Initiative 65 on the ballot. Maxwell wrote that the majority opinion “confidently and correctly points out” that the Supreme Court cannot amend the state constitution.
“Yet the majority does just that — stepping completely outside of Mississippi law — to employ an interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi’s citizen initiative process,” Maxwell wrote.
About 1.3 million people voted in Mississippi in November, and more than 766,000 of them voted in favor of Initiative 65, which required the state Health Department to establish a medical marijuana program by the middle of this year. The department had been working to create a program as the legal fight continued.
People also have started investing money in businesses related to medical marijuana in Mississippi. A cannabis cultivation supplier announced in April that it was leasing a warehouse in Jackson with plans to open this summer, WLBT-TV reported.
Mississippi was among about three dozen states to have approved medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
To get Initiative 65 on Mississippi's statewide ballot, organizers gathered signatures from the five congressional districts that the state used during the 1990s. They did that based on legal advice issued years ago by the state attorney general’s office.
Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed a lawsuit days before the election, contending that the signature-gathering requirement is mathematically impossible with four congressional districts. She opposed Initiative 65 because it limits a city’s ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses.
“The city is pleased that the Supreme Court followed the plain language of the Mississippi Constitution and recognized that, unfortunately, the current voter initiative process is broken,” Butler said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday.
Ken Newburger, executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said the justices overturned the will of the voters.
“Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end,” Newburger said.
State attorneys said Mississippi has two sets of congressional districts — one set used for congressional elections and one set used for other purposes. An attorney for Butler argued that the only purpose of a congressional district is to have boundaries for electing U.S. House members.
Mississippi Supreme Court Associate Justices T. Kenneth Griffis, left, Dawn Beam, center and Josiah Dennis Coleman, listen to attorneys presenting arguments over a lawsuit that challenges the state's initiative process and seeks to overturn a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved in November 2020, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Chief Justice Michael Randolph said during last month's hearing that seven bills have been filed over the years to update Mississippi’s initiative process to remove confusion about signatures coming from old or new congressional districts, and legislators have not made the change.
Legislative leaders have not said clearly why they have not updated the initiative process in the 20 years since Mississippi lost a congressional district. The problem with five districts versus four has existed first with Democrats in control at the Capitol and now, for many years, with Republicans in control.
People are gathering signatures for several other proposed initiatives, including one to authorize widespread early voting and another to expand Medicaid.
Justices on Friday did not mention two other ballot initiatives that Mississippi voters approved in 2011, after the state dropped from five congressional districts to four. Initiative 27 requires people to show government-issued photo identification before voting. Initiative 31 limits the use of eminent domain — the practice of governments taking private property for other uses.
During the legislative session that ended in April, the Senate tried to create rules for a state medical marijuana program, but the House defeated the effort. Republican Sen. Kevin Blackwell said the proposal was a backstop to have a program in place in case the Supreme Court invalidated Initiative 65. But supporters of Initiative 65 balked at the proposal, saying they saw it as an attempt to usurp what voters approved.