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Progress for Cannabis in Mississippi

Progress for Cannabis in Mississippi

Mississippi shook the entire cannabis industry when the state backslid on its initiative to bring cannabis to the state, though the vast majority of voters voted in favor of medical. I interviewed the founding member of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association in 2021 about that fiasco. Link here: https://www.skunkmagazine.com/mississippi-cannabis-legalization-goddamn/?v=7516fd43adaa.

Gratefully, On January 26, 2022, the Mississippi Legislature gave its final approval to the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act (SB 2095), sponsored by Sen. Kevin Blackwell, to restore voters’ will by creating a medical cannabis program. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed the bill into law on February 2, 2022 (mpp.org).

I caught up with Melvin C. Robinson III, who currently works as the Director of Communications and Media for the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association, to get the scoop on the current state of cannabis in Mississippi.

Aja: What is the feel of the cannabis industry in Mississippi right now?

Melvin: Well, I can say from our perspective, we’re happy that we actually have a bill that is law now, so we can actually start up the program here. It was a long time coming. Fortunately, what happened with Initiative 65 is in the past now. We do have a bill. It’s not a perfect bill by far, but I truly believe that it’s a damn good start, especially considering other places in the south that have allowed medical programs to start. I think we have a great starting point. I think that this can really transform the state, especially with how agriculturally based our state is. I think that most people are just relieved that we actually have a program now.

Aja: What’s the bill called?

Melvin: The Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act.

Aja: You said it’s okay, but it’s not perfect. What would you change about this Act?

Melvin: I would definitely add more qualifying conditions. We have 22 right now, but I would add anxiety for sure. That’s not added. I would definitely want to see that. Patient access needs to be improved. Again, all of this is theory now. No one has had it in practice yet, but once we have it in practice, we’ll see more of the pros and the cons. Definitely those two things. I’m not speaking for MSCTA, but personally, I would allow home growth. There are some people who just wouldn’t be able to afford buying it as often as they would possibly need it. If people could grow or be allowed to grow it themselves, that would be good. It’s kind of weird because we are treating it as a medical item, but people also want to still treat it as a moral thing. They’re like, ‘Hey yeah, this is great. This will allow us to get people more relief from opioids and everything. Hey, but by the way, I don’t want that shit in my city.’ You know what I’m saying? For this program and for this industry to work, you don’t want to have this many obstacles preventing it from working. We want to make sure people can access pain management and things like that, but they also shouldn’t have to jump through hoops because you think everybody is trying to abuse this stuff.

Aja: You mentioned the environment of Mississippi and people making it a moral issue. I think a lot of people still see Mississippi as the Bible Belt and maybe a little bit ‘behind large cities.’

Melvin: Yeah. One thing you have to remember is the demographics of Mississippi. Mississippi is 38% black. Mississippi has the second blackest city in the nation, Jackson, Mississippi, at 83%. If you go back to that movie Django Unchained, one of the big plot points was Jamie Foxx saying, ‘Hey, I gotta go save my wife. She’s in Candyland in Mississippi.’ They cut to the scene in Mississippi, and you’re introduced to Mississippi with enslaved people walking through the mud with a slow scroll of ‘Mississippi’ going across the screen. I feel like people have that kind of thought about Mississippi because Mississippi needs a rebrand. We have a very special type of stubbornness, and a lot of the people are just stubborn about stuff. Because we have brain drain issues, we have population issues. For example, Mississippi was one of only three states to actually lose population during the pandemic. I think that our cannabis program is more progressive than others because of its free market approach. Take, for example, Florida has a certain amount of licenses. I think with Louisiana, don’t quote me. I’m not sure if this is correct, but I think they were allowing five licenses at a time. Here it is a free market approach where we don’t have any license caps or anything like that. You can apply for different types of businesses. You can have plant-touching businesses, you can have auxiliary businesses, and everything like that. One thing that I just don’t agree with is the taxation. It’s a 5% excise tax while the state doesn’t tax medical products or medicine. That’s one of those things where people are still trying to treat it like a moral issue instead of an actual medical issue. I think there also needs to be some social justice aspects around it, especially considering dispensaries. But as far as the licensing and the different prices to actually get into the program, it is not that bad. It’s just not. It’s really not.

Aja: Are you concerned that Mississippi will become a saturated market like Oklahoma since there is no cap in licensing?

Melvin: No, not at all. With Oklahoma, I believe it was what, $2,500. With Mississippi, we have different tiers. Say for cultivation, you have a micro cultivation tier, and then you have a cultivation tier. With a micro cultivation tier, you could have a less than 1000 square foot canopy area where you grow your product. It’s like probably $3,500 to set up. Versus a tier six cultivation facility, which is a hundred thousand square feet or more, which is thousands of dollars more. The thing is, if you have a thousand-foot cultivation facility, you’re not going to become a millionaire off that. If you have a 500-square-foot cultivation area, you’ll make a little money, and that’s great. People can participate, but it’s not one of these things where you have to have entire farms set up. I know Oklahoma had an issue with actually checking their businesses. With Mississippi, we have a seed-to-sell system that we’re going to have from the start. We have an entire department with the department of health that’s already hiring people. They’re already making sure they’re going to be able to examine and look at these businesses. Also, while the pricing of the industry to get in isn’t as high as in other places, there is sort of a barrier to entry. If you wanted to do a dispensary, for example, it’s not $2,500, but it’s not a million dollars liquid; it’s $40,000. All you have to do is pay your application fee and pay your licensing fee every year. The licensing fee will be yearly. It’s $25,000. That’s one of those things where $40,000 is not anything to sneeze at all, but it’s still not a million like other places.

Aja: What needs to be done to legalize homegrow?

Melvin: That kind of depends on zoning. If you were to do a home grow, it would count as a cultivation facility, and cultivation facilities are only allowed in agricultural and industrial zones. Now you can do it in a commercial zone, but you have to get a variance from your local zoning department, but no cultivation is allowed in residential areas. I think it’s really up to the legislature and just seeing what they come up with. We advocate for patient rights. The Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association we are a business organization first, but we hold advocacy education and community near and dear. We make sure we advocate for patients because people need this. People want an alternative form of healthcare. They might not want to take opioids. They might feel better using cannabis, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We just want to make sure that we have plenty of patients with plenty of access to it. One of the things that’s kind of shocking is during COVID, the big hospital here, University Medical Center, was giving out stats that said COVID hurts people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and things like things like that. In a population of 3 million people, we have 900,000 people that covers. It’s one of those things where out of these 22 qualifying conditions, we have hundreds of thousands of people who can actually qualify for this Cannabis Act. That’s one of those things where we have to make sure they have adequate access to actually be able to reach a doctor who can give them their recommendation. We have to make sure we have enough dispensaries there. We have to make sure we have enough cultivators.

Aja: How bad is the opioid crisis in Mississippi right now?

Melvin: It’s definitely bad. If I am correct, I think Mississippi is like a top five area for opioid overdoses. Last year (2021), according to the Mississippi Department of Health, was the deadliest year for opioid overdoses that was ever recorded.

It’s one of those things where it’s like, where you’ll have people in positions of power saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to get people off these opioids. This cannabis sounds good. Hey, by the way, if you have a dispensary, let’s make sure you can’t have an access road.’ That didn’t happen, but you would hear some of these suggestions for the industry where it’s to the point of, ‘Hey, you’re not being serious. You are not being helpful. You sound insane.’ This is virtue signaling, basically.

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It’s to the point where we will talk to people, and they will say their piece, and we will make sure to never talk to them again because I can’t take you seriously when you tell me, ‘Hey, we want to make sure dispensaries are 10,000 feet away from other things.’ You know what I’m saying? If you’re on the radio telling people that an ounce of cannabis is the size of a loaf of bread. One, you have no idea how big an ounce of something is. Two, it is so unserious that I just can’t take you seriously anymore.

Aja: How do you think legalization in Mississippi will impact the illicit market?

Melvin: Well, that depends on if people can actually access their medicine. If you have a county that is heavily populated or city that is heavily populated, we have a clause in the MLCA where cities and counties can actually opt out of the program. This is the thing. It doesn’t mean people can’t bring cannabis into your county or into your municipality. It doesn’t even mean they can’t use it or anything. It’s just saying, ‘We don’t want to have facilities, or we don’t want to have dispensaries or anything like that in this municipality.’ Over 800,000 people out of 1.3 million voters voted to bring medical cannabis to Mississippi. We try to make sure that we tell different people in leadership positions that ‘You want to go with the people on this one because you don’t want them to resent you.’ Unfortunately, we’ve had some bigger places opt out. We’ve had some countries opt out, and unfortunately, those people will have to go and find cannabis in different ways.

Aja: What does it say about the people of Mississippi that the vote was overwhelmingly, historically, ‘yes’?

Melvin: I think it says that people are ready for a little bit of change. I think people understand how silly some of this could be. I think people see it as medicine, and I think people see it as a way they can make a little bit of money here. Those are two things we definitely need in Mississippi. Oregon hasn’t blown up; you know what I’m saying? California hasn’t fallen off the face of the map because cannabis is legal. I think people recognize that. I think that’s why people wanted to buy in and make sure that we could access medical cannabis here.

Aja: I read an article that stated legalization in Mississippi will change the culture of the Southeast. What do you think about that statement?

Melvin: I could definitely see that. People are going to say, ‘Damn, we’re behind Mississippi.’ I think that’s one of those things that’s going to make a lot of other states like South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, or Georgia say, ‘Hey, maybe we need to really consider this.’ Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida have pretty restrictive programs. Mississippi has the least restrictive one so far. I think it’s going to change the way those other places do their programs. I think that’s how that’s going to change the Southeast because, again, most of these states are poorer. Most of these states rely on federal aid. Mississippi, we rely on the most federal aid out of any state in the union. 40% of the money we get in this state is federal aid. I think it’s really something where we could change the shape of this entire area, the south and the Southeast, by making sure we buy into these programs.

Aja: What do you have to say to the people who are reading this article?

Melvin: I’m glad that we have a program now. I’m glad about the future of Mississippi…hold politicians accountable who said one thing and didn’t do that. Make sure you make your voice known and make your voice heard. I would also say if anybody needs any more information, I am very open. They can contact me at [email protected] They can contact the MSCTA, [email protected] We’re willing to help anyone. We’re doing some signature drives now for places that have opted out. If you need any resources for that, we can most definitely send them. Yeah, I’m excited about the program. I’m excited about the industry. I’m excited about what the state will look like in five years.