When I first learned about Mississippi cannabis legalization, I was ecstatic. Finally, Mississippi was joining the ranks of legalized states and could possibly open doors for economic opportunities and patient access.
Because I travel to Mississippi somewhat regularly, I’d noticed it becoming more contemporary. The state flag is no longer a Confederate flag. Walmart is no longer a major shopping attraction. Instead, the magnolia flower, a symbol of gentleness and beauty, is centered on the new state flag. Jackson; the state’s capital; boasts vegan restaurants, kombucha, and yoga studios.
Mississippi cannabis legalization was just icing on their contemporary cake; or so I thought.
Though a whopping 74% of Mississippians voted via ballot initiative in favor of Mississippi cannabis legalization in November 2020, the state’s Supreme Court overturned the decision due to a technicality on May 14, 2021.
“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of the constitutional signature distribution requirement wrote a ballot initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress,” Mississippi Supreme Court.
I caught up with Jessica L. Rice; CEO of MJ Legal, P.A. and founding member of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association to discuss what’s really going on in the, “Sip.”
Aja: How and why did the Supreme Court rule the medical cannabis ballot initiative that Mississippians voted for was unconstitutional?
Jessica Rice: The basis of the complaint was that because there are only four congressional districts in the state of Mississippi, the ballot initiative process was unconstitutional. The constitution requires signatures to be gathered from all five of the congressional districts in the state of Mississippi. This was written and passed in 1993 when Mississippi still had five congressional districts. In 2000 after the census, Mississippi’s population decreased and we lost one of those congressional seats. So from 2000, until today, we only have four congressional districts. It’s a very technical issue. Days before the election, the city of Madison objected to the initiative, stating that it’s a mathematical impossibility for the Secretary of State to have properly certified the petitions and the signatures because we don’t have five congressional districts. The Supreme Court agreed with the city of Madison.
Aja: Mary Hawkins Butler is the mayor of Madison and one of the longest standing mayors in the country. She’s been in office for about 40 years, right?
Jessica Rice: Yes, that’s correct.
Aja: Who is this woman? Do you think there’s another agenda involved?
Jessica Rice: I think that she has been in power for a really long time. She’s done a lot of things for the city of Madison that people have loved, and she’s done a lot of things in the city of Madison that a lot of people have disagreed with. They have very strict rules on zoning. People call Madison the “Brick City,” because one of Mayor Mary’s infamous, zoning things that she got accomplished was making every business be brick buildings. It’s kind of interesting because you’ll go and you’ll see franchises that you’ll see all over the country, but they are different in Madison, Mississippi and that’s one of the things that she’s done. She has amassed a lot of power in the state over her forty-year reign as mayor. She’s kind of made a name for herself, in good ways and bad ways.
Aja: So why would Mississippi reject millions of cannabis dollars? I mean, doesn’t Mississippi need economic opportunities?
Jessica Rice: Definitely so! We are in desperate need of a new industry that cannot only bring jobs to the state but also keep people in the state. Mississippi is facing a huge, “brain drain,” where we’re seeing a lot of our young, bright, Mississippians get their education here and then take that knowledge somewhere else where they have better opportunities, better jobs, and higher wages. They’re investing in other communities versus staying in Mississippi because there just aren’t a lot of opportunities. That was something that the cannabis industry could have brought to the state. It could have also given patients another avenue for relief.
Aja: Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler said that democracy has been moving along just fine without ballot initiatives. Do you think that’s true?
Jessica Rice: No. I don’t think you can have a lively and healthy democracy without the people having a way to directly influence their constitution.
Aja: Do you think Mississippi is the least democratic state in the country?
Jessica Rice: I don’t. We’ve struggled just like every other state. But I’m confident we will progress because with this opinion coming out from the Supreme Court, a lot of Mississippians have stepped forward regardless of their opinions on medical marijuana and said, ‘hey, you know, this is something that we want and voted for.’ The people are becoming very engaged in the political process. There have been a lot of grassroots efforts to call state Senators, state representatives, federal representatives, and statewide officials and make sure that they know that Mississippians want the ballot initiative process. I’ve been really encouraged by that show of engagement. So, no I don’t think that Mississippi is the least democratic state.
Aja: A little bit earlier you said the census reflected a decrease in population in the state. Mississippi saw the greatest population loss it had experienced in 60 years, but the Black population in the state actually grew. Do you think this has anything to do with this push to get rid of the ballot initiative?
Jessica Rice: No. I think that’s just happenstance. I’m really interested to see what our numbers look like after this 2020 census. We may have more changes to how our representation looks. I think it’ll be interesting to see what demographics have stayed the same or grown or moved or changed, especially age wise and racially.
Aja: The 1890 Mississippi redrafted its constitution after Black people gained political power in the state during Reconstruction. It has been explicitly stated that this redraft was to ensure white supremacy. Do you think there’s a connection between the 1890 constitution being redrafted to eliminate Black political power and what has happened with cannabis?
Jessica Rice: Maybe not a direct link, but I think an indirect link for sure. We all know, Mississippi has a sorted past, especially with race relations and having white supremacy embedded into not only the culture of the state, but the actual laws of the state. So quite frankly, it wouldn’t be shocking to see that this is a result of something that happened 130 years ago. Those things were definitely intentionally done by our politicians and our leaders a 100 years ago and even 50 years ago.
Aja: What can we do as cannabis advocates to really speak up to what is going on in Mississippi right now?
Jessica Rice: I think educating people in the state about cannabis as a medicine, how it’s going to be able to help so many patients in Mississippi, and how it’s going to be able to lower our opiate death rates is key. Mississippi has the fifth highest opiate death rate in the country. It’s really a travesty here. When you open up dispensaries you bring those percentages down. Educating our policymakers and regulators on the economic benefits of the cannabis industry, and teaching them that cannabis is a highly regulated industry are keys as well. It is not people just being high in the streets or like, “Reefer Madness.’ Mississippi cannabis legalization will happen. It may not be through initiative sixty-five; though we’re hearing mumblings of a medical marijuana program coming back up through the legislature, whether in a special session or in the regular session that begins in January of 2022. We also need to make sure the policy makers who are going to be writing these laws and drafting these bills have access to experts in the field.
Aja: I read something about there being another push to put the Confederate flag back on the Mississippi state flag. Was that part of the ballot initiative as well?
Jessica Rice: There was an initiative about the flag. Up until last year we had the Confederate flag included into our state flag. It’s been highly controversial for years. There was an initiative about the flag, initiative sixty-four, it was about adopting a new flag. However, the new flag ended up being adopted by the state legislature. The initiative process didn’t really impact the fact that we got a new flag, if that makes sense. So it’s currently not at risk.
Aja: Jessica, during this conversation, we’ve spoken about 1890 and white supremacy. We’ve spoken about the Black population increasing in Mississippi. We’ve spoken about the Confederate flag. I want to paint a different image of Mississippi because there are people in the Northern states who are descendants of people who migrated, sometimes violently, from Mississippi who are still afraid to even come down to Mississippi. I would like you to paint a picture of what Mississippi is today.
Jessica Rice: My family was from Mississippi and my grandparents were from Clarksdale, Mississippi. They fled the state in the fifties due to racial tensions (and the desire for) better opportunities. They initially moved up to east St. Louis and eventually landed in Omaha, Nebraska where the vast majority of my family lives and resides today. My dad was in the military and after retiring from the military in 2001, we were living in Florida. Soon after retiring, he got a job in Indiana, where we lived for several years. Eventually, that job in Indiana came with a promotion and a move to Mississippi. I hadn’t ever been to Mississippi before the age of 12 so it was very much a shock to my system. In Florida, we lived near a military base where it was very racially diverse just by the nature of being close to two military bases. Then living in Indiana I was one of the only black students in my school and I faced a lot of racial adversity. I was told that I had to sit in the corner because I was the only Black student my teacher had ever taught in her 15 years of teaching and she didn’t know how to teach me. So I needed to sit in the corner until she could figure it out. Then I came to Mississippi where people might assume that would happen here. However, I haven’t experienced that level of outright racism here and I believe that is partially due to Mississippi having the highest Black population of any state, outside of the District of Columbia. I think that helps some with race relations because in Mississippi, you can’t live your whole life without seeing or interacting with someone who looks different than you. So while people are kind of set in their ways about some of the things that they think about race or race relations, or how we should interact in society, people generally know how to interact with each other and are generally overwhelmingly kind to each other. Mississippi is the hospitality state and you will feel very welcomed here regardless of race. Now that’s not to say that some places aren’t more welcoming than others but generally people are pretty kind. They want everyone to feel at home here. Mississippians are very proud of Mississippi. I’ve grown to call myself a Mississippian and I’m very proud to be a Jacksonian, living in our Capital City. There are a lot of people here fighting for a better Mississippi because we see its potential. We have so many great resources and so many great people who are from this state. That’s not just happenstance – that’s a product of the state. Mississippi develops kind, strong, intelligent people. We just need to find a way to keep them.
Aja Yasir is a wife, mother, holistic gardener and folk herbalist living in Gary, Indiana. She uses regenerative methods such as habitat restoration, intense biodiversity, and Korean Natural Farming to grow over 200 varieties of fruit, vegetables, medicinal herbs, and mushrooms at her urban home. In addition, Aja is the host of Abundant Living and Gardening Podcast, the Executive Director of Gary NORML, founder of Blaze Summit: Conversations on Cannabis, and Cannabis Sommelier.