Mississippi marijuana proposal delayed over public notice issue

Published 9:52 pm Friday, May 7, 2021

Signature gathering will be delayed for a broad-based marijuana legalization proposal in Mississippi because of an error in notifying the public about the ballot initiative, the secretary of state’s office said Friday.

Initiative 77 would legalize cultivation, possession and use of marijuana, authorize a 7% sales tax on the products and allow marijuana smoking wherever tobacco smoking is allowed. It proposes to replace Initiative 65, the medical marijuana ballot measure that voters approved in November.

Mississippi law requires the secretary of state to publish the title and summary for each proposed initiative within 10 days after those documents are filed The notice must appear in “a newspaper or newspapers of general circulation” in the state.

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A news release from Secretary of State Michael Watson said that his office sent the notice to the Mississippi Press Association. Its affiliate, Mississippi Press Services, distributed the notice to many newspapers for them to publish, but it missed five newspapers on the list.

Layne Bruce, executive director of MPA and MPS said in the release that the organizations regret the error.

“We will work diligently to avoid this kind of oversight in the future,” Bruce said.

At the secretary of state’s request, the notice about Initiative 77 will be published in the five omitted newspapers by May 13. They are the Sea Coast Echo in Bay St. Louis, the Sun Herald in Biloxi/Gulfport, the Rankin County News, the Charleston Sun Sentinel and the Clarksdale Press Register.

Sponsors of initiatives have one year to gather signatures. The secretary of state’s office said the timeline for Initiative 77 will begin after the public notice has been published in the five newspapers.

The state Health Department is working to set regulations for a medical marijuana program by the middle of this year, as required by Initiative 65. The state Supreme Court heard arguments last month in a lawsuit by Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, which seeks to block Initiative 65 by arguing that it was improperly on the ballot.

Butler filed the lawsuit days before the election, and she opposes Initiative 65 because it limits a city’s ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses. Her lawsuit argues that Mississippi’s initiative process is outdated.

The Mississippi Constitution says petitioners must gather an equal number of signatures from five congressional districts. 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.

State attorneys defended the initiative process by arguing that Mississippi has two sets of congressional districts — the current four for electing U.S. House members and the old five that are used for other purposes, including the appointment or election of people to other government jobs.

Supreme Court justices did not say when they will rule.