Op-ed: Leave local decisions to locals and vote no on I65

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The following is an op-ed by Clarke Wise, vice president of government relations for the Mississippi Association of REALTORS. Wise serves as the association’s lobbyist, monitors all legislative and regulatory activity that impacts the business of real estate, promotes grassroots political advocacy, and is the staff liaison to the association’s Legislative & Regulatory Affairs Committee, MARPAC, and the Issues Mobilization Committee.

Mississippians have a great opportunity and responsibility when they head to the polls on November 3, 2020.  I’m not talking about how they cast their ballot for President, Senator, or Congressman- I’m talking about placing marijuana in our constitution.

Clarke Wise

You have no doubt seen the well-funded campaign behind Initiative 65 through commercials of testimonials and emotional arguments asking for your support to legalize marijuana in Mississippi.  To be honest, the ads are compelling.  But they don’t tell the whole story.

Proponents of Initiative 65 used words like “conservative,” “responsible,” “strict regulations,” and “compassion” to promote a narrative to push an effort supported by multi-millionaires and out of state interests dedicated to profit from changing our constitution and taking away control from our local communities.

I took the time to read the five pages of text in Initiative 65 and “conservative” is not the word I would use to describe the impact of this constitutional change.  Allowing these marijuana dispensaries a mere 500 feet from our schools, churches, and child care centers is hardly “conservative.” Additionally, Initiative 65 will not allow cities and counties to zone these marijuana dispensaries any differently than pharmacies or other commercial or industrial businesses (even though marijuana is a federally illicit substance) (Section 8-5 of the proposed constitutional text).  Quite simply, we have out of state interests telling Mississippians how their communities should look and function.

And when the proponents of 65 say it’s “self-funded,” they leave out the part of their language that requires a $2.5 million dollar loan from our state’s rainy-day fund to start up the program (Section 6 of the proposed constitutional text).  That’s right, the program begins with an obligatory loan from the taxpayers.  Once the program is up and going and brings in the millions of dollars in revenue each year, not one penny can go to improve our infrastructure.  Not one penny can go to improve our schools.  Not one penny can be spent on anything other than promoting and running the marijuana program in Mississippi (Section 6 of the proposed text).

Now the proponents of Initiative 65 use the terms “responsible” and “strict regulations” when referencing their proposal. I’m not sure how allowing an unlimited number of marijuana dispensaries with zero oversight from the FDA falls under the notion of responsible (Section 5-4 of the proposed constitutional text).  I have even heard some talk about the physician’s involvement in this process, and I think there is some misinformation being spread.  Under Initiative 65, a doctor does not prescribe marijuana for medical purposes.  As long as marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug on a federal level, marijuana cannot be prescribed.  Regardless of what proponents may say, Initiative 65 does not give physicians prescriptive authority for marijuana.

Finally, I want to address the notion of “compassion.”  I have personally fielded phone calls and responded to social media comments that claim Initiative 65 is the cure for all our state’s suffering patients.  Like many of you reading this, I have had close family lose horrendous battles with cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and I have family members that continue to fight these horrible diseases each day.  I have spent more nights at MD Anderson than any person should have to endure.  And I witnessed my uncle take his last breath in his struggle with brain cancer.  I say all this because whether you are for or against Initiative 65, neither side has a monopoly on grief.

When you head to the polls or fill out your absentee ballot and you reach Statewide Ballot Measure One, I hope you will have taken the time to read what Initiative 65 seeks to enshrine in our constitution.  There’s a lot of concerning language in there and it will be very difficult to change.  And for those who ask why it’s so confusing, ironically, it’s because this process is spelled out in the state constitution.

I’m not sure who started the narrative that Initiative 65 is the last and only chance for a medical marijuana program in Mississippi, but it’s simply not true.  Alternative Measure 65A still amends the constitution; however, the legislature will be tasked with crafting the details of the program.  This means local communities have a chance to have a say in zoning, taxation, and most importantly, any changes can be made swiftly compared to another ballot initiative (as would be required with Initiative 65).  To be clear, Alternative Measure 65 A establishes a medical marijuana program in Mississippi.

In closing, I had one person say I was “splitting hairs” when it came to the words contained in Initiative 65.  They are exactly right.  Words matter, especially when it comes to our constitution. There is a reason we have a representative form of government- I suggest we put them to work on this issue.

I ask you to join me in voting Against Initiative 65 and For Alternative Measure 65A on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

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