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State Supreme Court to hear medical marijuana arguments today

 

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler on Oct. 26 filed a challenge to ballot Initiative 65 on medical marijuana, saying it was not properly before voters (who passed it) in November per the state constitution.

The state Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in the legal battle between Butler and Secretary of State Michael Watson, with many people and groups signing on with one side or the other as “amicus” or friendly participants.

What’s the argument?

Butler argues that the ballot initiative language added to Section 273 of the state constitution in 1992 requires proponents to gather signatures evenly from five Mississippi congressional districts — with no more than 1/5, or 20% coming from any single district. Problem is, Mississippi has had only four congressional districts since the 2000 Census showed it lost population. Therefore, Butler argues, it’s a “mathematical certainty” that of the nearly 106,000 certified voter signatures collected from what are now four districts to put Initiative 65 on the ballot last year, signatures from at least one of the districts surpasses 20%.

Butler’s lawyers also note that there have been at least seven unsuccessful attempts in the Legislature to address the issue, and that other parts of the constitution either refer to congressional districts “as now existing” or referring to their makeup at a specific date.

Amicus filings by the American and Mississippi Medical Associations argue that justices should strike down the initiative and let lawmakers make any necessary changes and “decline the invitation for the court to fix the one-fifth error.” They also said the court should consider that legalized cannabis is bad medicine for the state.

What’s the other side’s argument?

Watson argues that while a panel of federal judges ordered Mississippi to use a four-district map for congressional elections, the Legislature never adopted it and “five congressional districts exist under state law and may be used for anything but congressional elections.” Watson’s lawyers from the attorney general’s office say Watson’s predecessor, now Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, properly certified Initiative 65 petition signatures using the five districts in state law.

Watson said a plain reading of the constitution’s text “means our state’s five current congressional districts established by state law, not the four districts for federal congressional elections existing only by way of a federal court’s injunction,” otherwise getting an initiative on a ballot would be impossible. Shy of that, Watson argues, the court should consider that the intent of Section 273, passed by the Legislature and voters, was to allow citizen ballot initiatives.

And besides, Watson’s lawyers said, the “doctrine of laches” barring unreasonable delays in legal challenges should thwart Butler’s challenge, since she filed it just days before the Nov. 3 election where Initiative 65 passed.

Watson said the political or health arguments about medical marijuana and Initiative 65 should not be part of the high court’s consideration.

Who’s involved?

Supporters of Initiative 65, including two mothers of children suffering from medical conditions that could be treated with medical cannabis and numerous other citizens and medical doctors, have signed on as amicus interested parties.

Opponents signing on include the medical associations, Mississippi State Department of Health, state Sheriffs’ Association, the Mississippi Municipal League and several state lawmakers.

What’s next?

It’s unclear when the court might rule after hearing oral arguments on Wednesday. In the meantime, Initiative 65’s medical marijuana program is part of the state constitution. The state Health Department has been working to meet a July 1 deadline under Initiative 65 to publish its final rules and regulations governing medical marijuana in Mississippi.