Man responsible for regulating proposed Mississippi medical marijuana program worried about how to fund it

Published 4:13 pm Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Mississippi state health officer said Tuesday that he’s concerned about how the Health Department would receive money for its part in licensing and regulating a proposed medical marijuana program.

Dr. Thomas Dobbs said some regulatory programs, such as restaurant inspections, are funded by specific fees, but “there’s no mechanism for funding” for the Health Department in a medical marijuana bill that House and Senate leaders are promoting. Dobbs said relying on legislative budget writers to set aside money for medical marijuana regulation could result in cuts to other public health services if cash is tight.

“Whenever these big pots of money get into our state general fund and there’s a cut, it ends up cutting care for pregnant women and babies, and these other things get fully funded,” Dobbs said. “So, I just want to make sure that we’re very cautious about how we budget this money so that it doesn’t harm the public health mission.”

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Dobbs spoke at the Capitol during a hearing hosted by the Legislative Black Caucus.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn said Friday that they want Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to set a special legislative session because negotiators from the two chambers have agreed on a medical marijuana proposal, and they believe they’ve lined up enough votes to pass it. Reeves has not said whether he will call a special session.

Larry A. Walker is a retired pharmacology professor and former director of the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research, which started growing marijuana in 1968 for research projects. Walker said he has evaluated part of the medical marijuana bill that legislators could consider.

“Unless I missed something in the bill, the greatest deficiency is how do we monitor patients as they go on — for improvement, for side effects, for evaluation of the efficacy of the program,” Walker said.

The medical marijuana proposal would replace a voter-approved initiative that the state Supreme Court overturned in May. Justices said the state’s initiative process is outdated, so the medical marijuana measure was not properly on the ballot last November.

The new proposal would allow cities and counties to opt out of allowing the cultivation, processing or sale of medical marijuana, but it would also let local voters seek an election to reverse the decisions of those governing boards.

It also would set taxes, require that medical marijuana be grown only indoors and limit the amount of the drug that could be purchased each month by patients or their caregivers. It would set licensing and regulatory responsibilities for the state Department of Health and the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Hosemann and Gunn, both Republicans, want a few other topics on a special session agenda. They want legislators to approve financial help for hospitals that are trying to keep enough nurses and other employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, authorize death benefit payments for law enforcement officers and first responders who die of COVID-19, and set aside money for shelters that help victims of child abuse and domestic violence.