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Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Successful Ballot Initiative

May 16, 2021 by Dan McCue
Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

JACKSON, Miss. – The Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday overturned a voter-approved ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, holding that the election law governing ballot referendums is out of date.

The decision, which could halt other citizen-led efforts to amend the state constitution, struck down a referendum that passed in November with 68% of the vote.

The lawsuit was filed by Madison, Miss., Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, who argued the state’s initiative process is outdated and Initiative 65 should not have been on the ballot.

The ballot initiative process (Section 273) was added to the Mississippi Constitution in the 1990s. It requires petitioners trying to get any initiative on the ballot to gather one-fifth of signatures from each congressional district. 

Mississippi had five congressional districts at the time that was written. But the state dropped to four districts after the 2000 Census, and language dealing with the initiative process was never updated.

According to the majority in the 6-3 ruling, the process in the state constitution is simply unworkable without the fifth congressional district.

“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 majority in the ruling Friday. 

“To work in today’s reality, it will need amending — something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court,” he continued.

Later, he tried to sooth the ire of his three dissenting colleagues by explaining that it wasn’t the majority on the court, but the “reduction in representation [that] unintentionally stopped the ballot-initiative from working.”

“The intent evidenced by the text was to tie the twenty percent cap to Mississippi’s congressional districts, of which there are now four,” Coleman  wrote. “In other words, the loss of congressional representation did, indeed, break section 273 so that, absent amendment, it no longer functions.”

In a sharp dissent, Justice James Maxwell wrote that he believes the secretary of state correctly put Initiative 65 on the ballot. 

Maxwell wrote that the majority opinion “confidently and correctly points out” that the Supreme Court cannot amend the state constitution.

Advocates for the legalization of medical marijuana were not shy in venting their frustration with the ruling.

“Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end,” said Ken Newburger, executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, in a written statement.

“Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right. It’s a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn’t matter,” Newberger said.

The Mississippi State Department of Health had been in the process of writing the regulations and setting up the program with the intent of it starting in August.

A spokeswoman for the agency said Friday it would now stop all development of a medical marijuana program at this time.

The Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office is reviewing the ruling.

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