The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned a voter-approved ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state.
Following its approval by voters, the medical marijuana measure – Initiative 65 – had been certified by the Secretary of State but it was then subject to a legal challenge by a Mississippi mayor. The plaintiff’s case did not concern the question of cannabis legalization per se but instead argued the constitutional amendment was in violation of procedural rules concerning ballot measures. Mississippi’s highest court has now ruled 6-3 in favor of Madison County Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s case and nullified Initiative 65’s certification.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court judges noted that a “strong, if not overwhelming, majority of voters of Mississippi approved Initiative 65” but that Butler’s petition against the measure was correct on statutory grounds.
Her case references a Mississippi law from the 1990s – section 273 – that states “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.”
This law is intended to ensure that voter signatures are geographically dispersed across Mississippi before any measure makes it onto the ballot. At the time section 273 was put into effect, however, Mississippi had five congressional districts. Since then, it has dropped down to four districts due to the state’s stagnating population. This makes it impossible for any proposed constitutional ballot measure to adhere to the law, including the medical cannabis one.
The secretary of state and the dissenting judges argued against Butler’s lawsuit on the basis that the original spirit of the law was to ensure that a proposal had sufficient support across the state before being put to voters, and that the ballot campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi had arguably lived up to this standard.
The six judges who ruled in favor of Butler, however, said though this might be the case it is up to lawmakers or government administrators to resolve the issue. The Supreme Court is limited to following the letter of the law. The judges further acknowledged that the removal of one of Mississippi’s congressional districts means there is currently no legal way to amend the state’s Constitution via a ballot measure.
“We find ourselves presented with the question squarely before us and nowhere to turn but to its answer,” the decision states. “Remaining mindful of both the November 3, 2020 election results and the clear language in section 273 seeking to preserve the right of the people to enact changes to their Constitution, we nonetheless must hold that the text of section 273 fails to account for the possibility that has become reality in Mississippi.”
“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. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”
“We grant the petition, reverse the Secretary of State’s certification of Initiative 65, and hold that any subsequent proceedings on it are void,” the court concluded.
The Supreme Court ruling is a huge blow to Mississippi marijuana reform advocates who’d collected more than 214,000 signatures to put the question of medical cannabis legalization to voters. Sixty-eight percent of voters supported legalizing medical marijuana, with 74 percent preferring the citizen-led proposal – Initiative 65 – over a more restrictive proposal – Initiative 65A – put forward by the legislature.
“The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” said Ken Newburger, executive director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, in a press release. “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right.”
The Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed it will halt its work on the state’s medical cannabis program following the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Supreme Court showdowns over marijuana legalization proposals have been taking place across the US in recent times. Opponents of marijuana reform in Montana also filed a lawsuit against a voter-approved initiative on procedural grounds. So far the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case and instead referred it to the state’s lower courts, meaning it could yet work its way back up.
In Nebraska, the state’s highest court ordered a marijuana legalization question be struck from the ballot ahead of the 2020 elections for breaking the state’s single-subject rule. Meanwhile, in South Dakota a sheriff is also challenging a voter-approved marijuana legalization ballot measure on the basis of it violating the state’s single subject rule. After a Circuit Court judge sided with the plaintiff, the case was then put before South Dakota’s Supreme Court which has now heard all the arguments and is set to deliver its verdict.