Mississippi appeared poised to join dozens of other states in allowing medical marijuana this year. Voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative in November that would have granted access to individuals with 22 debilitating conditions.
Those individuals had been counting down the days to better pain management. Others, who intended to sell the product, invested money—some of them millions—on land and space to host their operations.
But all of these people (and Mississippi voters) had the rug pulled out from underneath them when the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the initiative this month in a 6-3 decision.
The ruling stems from a case brought before the state’s high court by Mary Hawkins Butler, the mayor of Madison, a suburb of Jackson. In her lawsuit, filed just before the election, the mayor argued the signature-gathering requirement for ballot initiatives is mathematically impossible with four congressional districts.
Here’s the breakdown. The state’s ballot initiative process was added to the Mississippi Constitution in the 1990s as Section 273. The process requires petitioners to gather one-fifth of the necessary signatures from each congressional district in order to have an initiative placed on the ballot. When the process was written, Mississippi had five congressional districts. But the state dropped down to four districts after the 2000 Census and the language was never updated.
Notably, lawmakers have been asked to amend Section 273 on numerous occasions during the intermediate years, but legislation has never made it out of committee.
It seems the state mostly decided to look the other way on this technicality for 21 years, as numerous other initiatives were passed without such a challenge. The justices who voted to overturn the initiative on medical marijuana on these grounds did not mention two other recent ballot initiatives approved in 2011. Initiative 27 requires people to show government identification before voting. And Initiative 31 limits the use of eminent domain.
“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,” Butler said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday.
Butler was reportedly opposed to the medical marijuana initiative because it limited a city’s control on where such businesses were located.
Essentially, Mississippi rulers, and some members of its Supreme Court, are choosing to selectively apply a technicality on their books—overturning the will of the people when it happens to displease them. If it seems unfathomable that the state could not update its laws in a period of 21 years so that its ballot initiatives were constitutional and legally binding— well it should. It is so unfathomable it would be quite difficult to imagine it as anything other than intentional.
Essentially, Mississippi rulers, and some members of its Supreme Court, are choosing to selectively apply a technicality on their books—overturning the will of the people when it happens to displease them.
Understandably, the people of Mississippi are outraged. They jumped through all the hoops ordered by their government to pass a policy—signature gathering, filing, and the expense that goes along with a ballot campaign—on the legal advice issued by the state’s attorney general years ago. And they showed up to vote. 766,000 residents (out of 2.9 million residents and 1.3 million voters) voted in favor of this initiative. But ultimately, voters were told their voices did not matter.
As some observed, in their zeal to thwart medical marijuana use, prohibitionists effectively killed the ballot initiative process in Mississippi.
"Through its actions, not only is this particular initiative dead, but so is Mississippi’s citizen initiative process," Justice James Maxwell wrote in his dissent.
Ken Newburger, the executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association said, “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end.”
And other voters expressed their dismay.
This is bigger than medical marijuana, the Mississippi Supreme Court just ruled that Mississippians do not have the ability to affect change in their state through majority vote.— Jessica (@_jessicarice) May 14, 2021
73% of voters voted for medical marijuana use in Mississippi. today, our Supreme Court decided to not only throw out the initiative, but the ballot initiative process that allows citizens to even have a direct, active voice on legislative measures. please don’t ask why we leave.— Maze 👣 (@MaisieBrownJxn) May 14, 2021
I keep hearing politicians in Mississippi say "the people should decide." The people voted overwhelmingly for Medical Marijuana, and the politicians ignored that vote. Our leaders are out of touch with the people of Mississippi.— I. Richard Gershon (@IRichardGershon) May 14, 2021
The economist F.A. Hayek once wrote, “Laws must be general, equal, and certain.”
It is a simple but important principle by which to measure the morality of laws. If laws are not general, they will be hard to follow and frequently broken, rendering them pointless. If laws are not applied equally, a system cannot be called just—the people would be right to resist them. And if laws are not certain there will be chaos.
For a republic to function ethically and justly, these rules in the creation and enforcement of our laws must be followed. Mississippi lawmakers and justices violated this contract with their voters and created a framework in which the law is no longer certain and the people cannot be guaranteed a voice in their process.
When voters are yanked around in this manner they will no longer respect the laws and institutions that govern them, and rightfully so.