Mississippi high court hears arguments contesting medical marijuana measure

Just Released! Get realistic market forecasts, state-by-state insights and benchmarks with the new 2024 MJBiz Factbook member program, now with quarterly updates. Make informed decisions.

The Mississippi Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on a constitutional challenge that seeks to nullify a medical marijuana legalization initiative – after voters overwhelmingly approved the measure last November.

At stake is a potentially huge, business-friendly MMJ market in the Deep South: The recently released 2021 Marijuana Business Factbook projects that a Mississippi medical cannabis industry would generate $265 million in sales the first full year and $800 million annually by the fourth year.

Efforts also are being made to try overturn adult-use legalization in Montana and South Dakota.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph appeared to strongly lean toward striking down MMJ legalization, and the most pointed questions from the justices were directed to the attorney defending the initiative on behalf of the Secretary of State’s office.

But a legal expert noted that some justices appeared supportive and others didn’t ask any questions, so it’s difficult to assume how the Supreme Court will rule.

“It was a little dispiriting if you were in favor of legalization,” said Whitt Steineker, co-chair of the Birmingham, Alabama-based Bradley law firm’s cannabis practice.

But, as “for predicting an outcome, if I was on a casino on the Mississippi River, I’d probably find something else to bet on.” He said it could come down to a 5-4 vote.

Before the hearing, NORML State Policies Manager Carly Wolf issued a statement characterizing the legal challenge as using “overly undemocratic tactics” to try to overturn the will of the voters.

More than 70% of Mississippians voted in favor of the measure, a level of support that surprised even MJ advocates.

The city of Madison filed the legal challenge.

The crux of the argument, as articulated Wednesday by attorney Kaytie Pickett, is that the plain language of a provision in the state’s Constitution requires citizen ballot petitions to collect 20% of the signatures from each of five congressional districts.

But in 2000, Mississippi lost a congressional district, and state lawmakers have failed seven times since then to update the initiative language.

So, by Pickett’s argument, it’s a mathematical impossibility to put a voter initiative on the ballot because 20% times four congressional districts equals only 80%.

Justin Matheny, an attorney defending the initiative for the Secretary of State’s office, argued that the “fairest” way to read the intent of the law is to use five districts as defined by state code.

Steineker said that if the Mississippi Supreme Court shoots down MMJ legalization, it will “undo the will of a supermajority of the people and fundamentally alter the ability of Mississippians to utilize a ballot initiative procedure in the foreseeable future.”

But Steineker noted that, in the meantime, the state’s health department is moving forward to develop rules and regulations by July 1 for a MMJ industry in Mississippi.

Chief Justice Randolph closed the hearing by saying that the justices would issue an opinion as quickly as possible.