Antiquated constitutional provision dooms Mississippi marijuana law

Antiquated constitutional provision dooms Mississippi marijuana law
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The Mississippi Supreme Court has struck down a voter-approved ballot measure legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, citing an outdated provision in the state constitution that requires supporters of an initiative to collect signatures in a congressional district that does not exist.

The court ruled Friday that the ballot measure was invalid because supporters needed to collect a portion of their signatures from all five of the state’s congressional districts.

But Mississippi only has four congressional districts, after losing a seat following the 2000 census.

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Section 273 of the Mississippi Constitution requires initiative supporters to collect one-fifth of their signatures from any congressional district. Any signatures from a district that represent more than one-fifth of the total cannot be counted by the secretary of state’s office — so, as written, supporters of a ballot measure cannot collect more than 80 percent of the signatures they need to qualify for the ballot.

The section was approved and added to the constitution in the 1990s, and it has not been amended.

“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress,” Justice Josiah Coleman wrote for the six-judge majority. “To work in today’s reality, it will need amending — something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

In a dissent, Justice James Maxwell wrote that the constitution as it stands contradicts itself, both by allowing a ballot initiative process and by establishing rules that makes qualifying an initiative for the ballot impossible. The interpretation of the section as it reads “judicially kills Mississippi’s citizen initiative process,” Maxwell wrote.

Almost 69 percent of Mississippi voters voted to approve a medical marijuana regime in 2020. Mississippi was one of just a handful of states that have not yet authorized marijuana use for medical purposes.

Supporters of the medical marijuana measure gathered enough signatures in each of what used to be Mississippi’s five congressional districts, operating under an opinion issued by former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (D). But the court sided against that opinion, effectively barring future ballot measures until the legislature amends the constitution once more.

“Today is a cruel and tragic day for sick and suffering people in Mississippi,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which backs legalization. “As a result, tens of thousands of Mississippians with debilitating health conditions will be denied safe, legal access to something that can alleviate their pain and improve their quality of life.”