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Mississippi Supreme Court overturns voter-approved medical marijuana initiative

The marijuana measure had been approved by voters, but the judges overturned it citing a flaw in the state constitution that could doom future measures.
Image: Michael Randolph, Justin Matheny
Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph, center, questions attorney Justin Matheny of the Mississippi attorney general's office, during arguments over a lawsuit that challenges the state's initiative process and seeks to overturn a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved in November, on April 14, 2021, in Jackson, Miss.Rogelio V. Solis / AP

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday struck down a medical marijuana initiative that was approved by voters in November — and the ruling is likely to doom other voter initiatives in the state as well.

Of the 1.3 million people who cast ballots there in November, more than half — 766,000 — voted to establish a state medical marijuana program.

In a 6-3 ruling, the state's high court held the initiative had to be struck down because of an odd flaw in the state constitution's voter initiative process.

Passed in the 1990s, the measure called for a percentage of signatures to come from each of the state's five congressional districts to get on the ballot. But, the judges noted, the state lost one of those congressional districts thanks to the 2000 U.S. Census, and now only has four districts.

Opponents of the ballot measure argued "that four (the number of districts) multiplied by twenty (the maximum percentage of signatures that may come from any one congressional district) equals only eighty."

"Therefore, Petitioners assert, it would have been impossible for the petition seeking to place Initiative 65 on the ballot to be properly certified," the judges noted — and agreed.

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

Three judges dissented, and said their colleagues effectively did amend the constitution by "stepping completely outside of Mississippi law" in order "to employ an interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi’s citizen initiative process."

"[T]hrough its actions, not only is this particular initiative dead, but so is Mississippi’s citizen initiative process," Justice James Maxwell wrote in his dissent.

Organizers had hoped to get other initiatives, including one that would require counties to offer a certain number of days of early voting and another for Medicaid expansion, causes not likely to be championed by politicians in the conservative state, on the ballot in 2022.

In his ruling, Coleman noted that state legislators have been aware of the problem with voting initiative provision, section 273, but have failed to fix it.

"From 2003 to 2015, at least six attempts were made by individual legislators to amend section 273 to reflect the new reality of four congressional district. None made it out of committee," his ruling noted.

The marijuana measure, Initiative 65, was opposed by Gov. Tate Reeves and other top officials.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler filed suit to block it before the election. Butler said she opposed it because it limits a city’s ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses, and told The Associated Press she was happy with the court's decision.

“Our case was about the constitutional separation of powers,” Butler said in a statement. “The city is pleased that the Supreme Court followed the plain language of the Mississippi Constitution and recognized that, unfortunately, the current voter initiative process is broken.”