From Jeff Pender, Mississippi Today.
After failing to secure three-fifths of the required votes on his first attempt Thursday night, Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann (right) held off on his Senate speech until Friday morning, approving a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program passed in November.
Senate Bill 2765, introduced by Kevin Blackwell (R), Senate President for Medicaid, passed Friday morning at approximately 1:15 a.m. by a vote of 30 to 19. The bill was defeated Thursday night by a 30-21 vote, while 31 votes were needed to pass it. In the early hours of Friday morning, fewer votes were needed to pass the bill because some senators were absent, lowering the threshold to three-fifths.
Feel. Jennifer Branning (R) and Tammy Witherspoon (D), who had voted against the measure the first time, were absent from the second vote. Senator Lydia Chassaniol (R), who voted for the bill the first time, was absent from the second vote. Sen. Benjamin Suber (R) was absent on the first vote, but voted in favor of the bill on the second vote.
The measure is now before the House of Representatives, where it faces an uncertain future. Senators have included a “reverse repeal” in the measure, meaning the House cannot send the measure to the governor without further debate in the Senate.
The measure would take effect only if the courts rejected the Initiative 65 medical marijuana program, which is currently enshrined in the state’s constitution but is being challenged in the state Supreme Court. The “trigger language” was added to the Senate bill in an amendment on Thursday. The original measure, if passed, would have created a separate program regardless of whether Initiative 65 exists or not.
The bill would tax medical marijuana with a 4% excise tax on the grow, and patients would pay the sales tax. To gain more support, the original 10% sales tax was changed to 7% Thursday night. Most of the taxes collected will be earmarked for education, including early childhood education and scholarships.
The bill also imposes high licensing fees on manufacturers and clinic owners. Originally, these fees would have been $100,000 for manufacturers and $20,000 for dispensaries. They were reduced Thursday night to $15,000 and $5,000, respectively. Other changes were made to appease those who thought the fee would prevent small businesses and farms from entering the market.
Despite numerous last-minute concessions to lower the marijuana tax and ensure that the measure would not conflict with the Initiative 65 medical marijuana program, which voters included in the state constitution in a massive vote in November, there was bipartisan opposition.
“The bill before you will not replace Initiative 65,” Blackwell told senators before the first vote. “It states that if Initiative 65 is rejected by the court, it will be passed. 74 percent of our population voted for Initiative 65, whether you like it or not …..This bill will only go into effect if the courts reject it.
But Senate Bill 2765 began as something of an endgame around Initiative 65, and by the time it was amended in a last-ditch effort to get enough votes, it would have “coexisted” with Initiative 65 or eventually replaced it, according to the courts and industry. Many supporters of the original People’s Initiative “marijuana” have called the legislature’s attempt to create a “parallel program” a “dirty deal.”
Watch the original Mississippi Senate debate on the medical cannabis measure at 8:29:36 in the video below:
After years of inaction by the legislature, despite growing popular support, voters took up the issue in November and approved Initiative 65. This is a constitutional amendment that mandates and expands the state’s medical marijuana program. The Department of Health is charged with implementing the program, although the department and its board of directors say it is ill-equipped for the task. Customary taxation of marijuana is prevented and the taxes collected by the Department of Health are to be used only for the administration and development of the marijuana program and not to pad the taxpayers’ coffers. Initiative 65 allows little regulation or zoning by local governments and places no limit on the number of dispensaries.
Constitutional Amendment 65 is also currently under consideration and will be heard by the Mississippi Supreme Court in April. Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler has filed a protest, arguing that the procedure for People’s Initiative 65 is flawed and that the measure was illegally submitted to voters. Other legislators and political observers have suggested that Initiative 65 could face further legal challenges – and that it could be stuck in court for years to come.
Some supporters of the Senate bill, passed Friday morning, have suggested that it could be used to bolster Mississippi’s medical marijuana program even if the state Supreme Court overturns a voter-approved constitutional amendment or faces years of legal challenges. Others have stated that the program could be better for taxpayers and local communities even if Initiative 65 is upheld.
Proponents of the bill argued that a program approved by the legislature would bring more stability to the industry, as many government officials oppose Initiative 65, including the agency responsible for its implementation, and prosecutions are still pending. They assume that manufacturers and clinics will choose the plan approved by the legislature.
The Senate plan would not involve the Department of Health, but the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Finance, which would regulate the program.
The Senate was in recess most of the day, in part because leaders were trying to gather votes and make changes to the medical marijuana proposal to get the three-fifths majority needed to pass it.
Here are the changes to the vote on SB 2765 (MS Medical Cannabis Act) #msleg The first vote is on February 11 and the second on February 12 (midnight session). pic.twitter.com/1BpPx3laVd
– Mississippi Statewatch (@MSStatewatch) February 12, 2021
Some of the key points that led to the defeat of the bill in its first attempt on Thursday :
– Democrats, and particularly the Black Caucus, were unhappy with the Senate’s approval of a bill on Wednesday to make it easier to purge Mississippi’s voter rolls, and did not feel very comfortable with the marijuana push.
– Some Republicans fear that the marijuana proposal contains anti-competitive measures that would favor large corporations and keep small growers and businesses in Mississippi from entering the market.
– Other Republicans did not want to vote on the marijuana proposal, period-one of the reasons the House did not propose a program until voters raised the issue in November with Initiative 65.
– After the rejection of Initiative 65 in November, with many supporters accusing the House of trying to stop the voting process on a voter-approved constitutional amendment, some lawmakers did not want to be seen as usurping a popular initiative.
This story was first published by Mississippi Today.
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