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Mississippi meltdown: Supreme court destroys government initiative system to stop medical marijuana

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The Haymaker is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s column of opinion on cannabis politics and culture.

In the past few months there has been amazing progress in cannabis reform in the American South.

Last November, 74% of Mississippi voters approved the legalization of medical cannabis. In February, Virginia lawmakers legalized full adult use of marijuana – and two months later they accelerated the legal possession date to July 2021. In early May, lawmakers legalized medical marijuana way down in Alabama.

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Sweet Lynyrd Skynyrd, the south is finally joining the future!

At least we thought.

Late last week, a handful of black-clad old-fashioned traditionalists pulled the brake cord on this train of progress and prosperity. The Mississippi State Supreme Court overturned the vote on medical legalization in November 2020, thereby depriving the state’s two million registered voters of voting rights.

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2020 election: cannabis legalization results and live coverage

A bug in the system

A little backstory: The Mississippi legislature launched the state’s constitutional election initiative in 1992. At the time, the state had five congressional districts. Legislators required signatures from each region to qualify a measure for the vote, with no more than 20% from any of the five counties.

Mississippi leaders have included a poison pill in the state’s electoral initiative process.

Eight years later, Mississippi lost a congressional district because the state lost population, according to the 2000 census. But nobody bothered to revise the language in the state initiative process to reflect this change.

For the past 21 years, Mississippi has maintained a statewide initiative process that was mathematically impossible to carry out. Initiative sponsors require signatures from a fifth nonexistent congress district. This anomaly effectively became a little-known poison pill embedded in the legal structure of the state.

No problem with previous initiatives

Since 1992, Mississippi voters have passed three state election initiatives. One limited state power over a significant domain (2011), another required voters to show proof of state-issued ID (also 2011), and a third legalized medical marijuana (2020).

To save the ban, the state’s Supreme Court suspended the entire voting process.

Mississippi authorities ignored the constitutional anomaly when they passed the first two initiatives in 2011. However, when an overwhelming 74% of the state’s voters endorsed medical cannabis in 2020, the custodians of the Mississippi legal infrastructure decided it was now time to swallow the poison pill.

In the name of protecting the magnolia state from the chaos and devilry of epileptic children who calm their seizures with a naturally growing plant, the Supreme Court declared the entire electoral process “impractical and not at first glance functional”.

To save the ban, the judges have destroyed the entire voting process.

It is now unclear whether these two 2011 initiatives are also invalid. Probably as the same rules now apply to any electoral measure passed after 2000.

Arizona tried this in 1996

The actions of the Mississippi court were extreme, but not unprecedented. Back in 1996, Arizona state lawmakers were so appalled by a medical marijuana measure passed by their own constituents that they assassinated the new law as soon as they met in Phoenix the following year. Arizona voters eventually demanded revenge by instituting a constitutional process on the Hammertime constitution that included a “U Can’t Touch This” clause and then re-approved a bigger and better medical marijuana law.

Will Mississippi voters do the same? Not necessarily, because the Supreme Court just destroyed the mechanism by which voters could rebuild their own initiative process.

The only people empowered to change the voting process are the Mississippi state lawmakers. And they have no incentive to do so. As long as the initiative process is interrupted, these legislators remain the only way a law can change – and thus more power is created in their pockets.

No incentive to correct this wrongly

Apparently three-quarters of their voters want Mississippi’s marijuana law to change. But the status quo works well for the few people in power.

We saw an example earlier this month when a Mississippi state appeals court upheld a life sentence for Allen Russell, a man convicted of possession of three ounces of cannabis.

You read that right: life in jail for three ounces of weed.

Russell, a 38-year-old black man from Hattiesburg, is the youngest victim in the horror story known as the war on drugs. But for those in power – and let’s be clear, these are old white men – the ability to send a black man to prison for life is a trait, not a mistake.

The brokers want it that way

Imagine a cop pulling you past your rear-view mirror under some pretext like an air freshener. When searching your car, he discovers half a rack of Pabst in the back seat. Now imagine if there is a law in the books that could send you to prison for a life because of the beer. If you’re white, the cop may be looking away. The district attorney can refuse to bring charges. The judge can suspend your sentence. If you’re black, not so much.

That’s the power that status quo marijuana laws give police officers, prosecutors, and judges in Mississippi.

We have just seen how much of the Mississippi ruling class is willing to destroy in order to maintain its own comfortable position. They like the power that prohibition gives. You enjoy it. You won’t give it up without a fight.

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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