Mississippi Supreme Court to hear challenge to state marijuana initiative

Published 12:52 pm Monday, April 12, 2021

The Mississippi Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that challenges the state initiative process and seeks to block development of a medical marijuana program.

Voters in November approved Initiative 65, which requires the state Health Department to establish a medical marijuana program by the middle of this year.

A lawsuit by Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler is trying to block the program by arguing that Mississippi’s initiative process is outdated and Initiative 65 should not have been on the ballot.

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The state constitution says petitioners must gather an equal number of signatures from five congressional districts that Mississippi used during the 1990s. The state dropped from five congressional districts to four after the 2000 Census, but the constitution’s language about initiatives was not updated. Butler’s lawsuit argues that this creates a mathematical impossibility with four districts because the constitution still specifies that no more than one-fifth of the signatures may come from any single district.

In papers filed Dec. 28, state attorneys argued that Mississippi has two sets of congressional districts — one set used for congressional elections and one set used for other purposes.
Butler opposed Initiative 65 because it limits a city’s ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses.

The Health Department, the Mississippi Municipal League and some others have filed briefs supporting Butler’s lawsuit. The Health Department argued that Initiative 65 seeks to transform the department “into something it is not,” even as the department is stretched because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Department officials have been working to create a medical marijuana program, even as the legal fight over the initiative continues.

During the legislative session that recently ended, the Senate tried to create rules for a state medical marijuana program, but the House defeated the effort. Republican Sen. Kevin Blackwell of DeSoto County said the proposal was a backstop to have a program in place in case the Supreme Court agrees with Butler and invalidates Initiative 65. But supporters of Initiative 65 balked at the Senate’s proposal, saying they saw it as an attempt to usurp the will of the voters.