Senate spends lots of time in recess — and in the weeds — for medical marijuana

Published 9:08 pm Friday, March 12, 2021

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The number of times Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has recessed the Mississippi Senate in recent days would make elementary-age students green with envy.

Many of those recesses, it appears, have involved medical marijuana — time needed to strategize on how to pass a medical marijuana proposal out of the Senate, where Hosemann presides.

Arguably, no issue has taken more of the Senate’s time this session, counting the recesses, than medical marijuana.

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Earlier this month on a key deadline day, with multiple bills pending that would die if not taken up, the Senate spent hours in recess presumably trying to develop a plan to pass a medical marijuana bill. They eventually did, though the Senate stayed in session until after 1 a.m. to finish its work.

On the surface, the issue does not seem that controversial. Hosemann said his only intent is to pass legislation “as a backstop” in case the Mississippi Supreme Court rules later this year that the process used to gather the signatures to place on the ballot an initiative to legalize the use of medical marijuana was unconstitutional. Voters overwhelmingly approved that initiative.

“My Senate could have said the heck with it, but they care about medical marijuana and the people who voted for it..,” Hosemann explained of the Senate’s preoccupation with the issue. “What happens if they (Supreme Court justices) declare it unconstitutional? We don’t come back until next year. What happens to all the people the advocates said would really have to have this… We are trying to make sure the issue they voted on is in effect immediately.”

But some supporters of that initiative fear Hosemann and others are trying to send the signal to the court that it is OK to throw out the initiative because they have “a backstop” so voters will not be too upset if the initiative is found unconstitutional. No doubt, many legislative leaders oppose the medical marijuana initiative because it prevents medical marijuana from being taxed to support education and other aspects of state government, and it severely limited the regulation of the drug.

Warning: The following gets deep in the weeds… of the legislative process.

Last week, the Senate’s effort to pass medical marijuana accelerated after the House killed the bill that Hosemann kept the Senate in session until past midnight to pass earlier this session.

Not to be deterred, the Senate found another bill — a House proposal called “Harper Grace’s Law” dealing with research on cannabidiol, or CBD oil — to insert the language legalizing medical marijuana. The decision to place the medical marijuana amendment in the cannabidiol bill, of course, was done after multiple recesses.

Despite those recesses, the bill would have been voted down if not for Sen. Jeremy England, R-Vancleave, who said he opposed the medical marijuana bill but ultimately opted not to vote, instead “pairing” with a senator who presumably supported the bill but was absent for a family illness. England was on record as being opposed to the bill, but his vote did not count. If his vote had counted, the bill would have been defeated by one vote.

But the Senate leadership made a strategic mistake during recess. The bill had “a reverse repealer,” meaning it would be repealed before it ever went into effect. In this case, the bill stood repealed on Jan. 1, 2021.

Reverse repealers often are added to ensure bills go to conference committee, where further negotiations between Senate and House leaders take place. But in this case a conference committee most likely would guarantee the death of medical marijuana during the 2021 session.

The language added to the Harper Grace’s bill in the Senate probably would not be allowed to stay in the bill had it gone to conference, according to numerous legislative sources. But the complex legislative rules would not prohibit the House from simply concurring in the changes the Senate made and sending the bill to the governor.

But the problem was that the bill as passed the Senate could not be sent to the governor because it would stand repealed even before it reached his desk. So, after more time in recess, Senate leaders mustered the votes to go back into the bill and remove the reverse repealer and pass it again by a narrow margin.

The second time it passed, two senators, England and Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown — both of whom said they opposed the bill legalizing medical marijuana — did not vote, instead pairing with absent senators who supported the bill. Had either England or McMahan actually voted, the bill would have been defeated.

The question now is whether the House will concur with the work the Senate has done to pass a proposal legalizing medical marijuana. If not, Hosemann and senators wasted a lot of time in recess.

This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture.

Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.