Marijuana reform is slowly taking shape in the South, after years in the making
Since Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use in 2012, 36 states have passed laws allowing it for medical or recreational purposes.
Approximately 68% of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll. The country has been steadily moving in the direction of ending marijuana prohibition and for a while, it seemed like the South was the outlier.
That’s not to say the region hasn’t attempted some reforms. Up until this year, Louisiana and Arkansas were the only states in the South with medical marijuana programs. Mississippi and North Carolina both have laws decriminalizing possession of marijuana in small quantities, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a research and advocacy organization.
In the South, change has been slow to come as marijuana advocates across the region struggled for years to get any meaningful reform through state legislatures.
Now there’s a shift.
In a span of a few months, several states have taken significant steps toward reform. Gov. John Bel Edwards, D-LA signed a decriminalization bill in June for possession of 14 grams or less of marijuana in Louisiana. The state’s medical marijuana program, which was approved in 2016, now allows the sale of marijuana in its flower form. Advocates say this will reduce the price of the product and make the program more affordable and accessible to patients. After years of trying to get a program approved, Alabama legalized medical marijuana this year. A proposed medical marijuana has also made progress in North Carolina this year. Nearly 70% of Mississippi voters approved a medical marijuana program by a ballot initiative last year. The effort was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court in May, but some advocates and state leaders indicate that conversations to continue the program are ongoing.
“Things are definitely progressing at a faster rate than they ever have in the past,” said Jonathan Brown, the president of CommonSense NOLA, a non-partisan group supporting marijuana reform in Louisiana. “I have seen the slow churn of state politics in Louisiana. I think there is a sense among state lawmakers that if they don’t want to be left out in the cold on this they have to move faster. They are way behind their constituency.”
Medical Marijuana in Louisiana experiences growing pains
Louisiana, along with Arkansas, was one of the first Southern states to legalize medical marijuana in 2016. The program remains one of the most heavily regulated in the U.S. and has struggled to grow. There are only two licensed cultivators and nine dispensaries allowed in Louisiana, according to state law.
By comparison, Arkansas has opened 33 dispensaries since 2019, according to the state’s Medical Marijuana Commission. Until this year, medical marijuana patients in Louisiana could only buy non-smokable forms of marijuana, including tinctures, salves, and gummies. Advocates have fought for years to get marijuana in a flower form approved by state leaders to be sold in Louisiana’s medical marijuana dispensaries. Opponents have fought the measure saying it could pave the route to legalization, according to reform advocates.
As a result, Louisiana’s program has remained small. Products are expensive and the limited number of dispensaries make it difficult for patients to travel to buy products that aren’t covered by insurance. Arkansas’ program meanwhile has boomed to include close to 80,000 registered patients as of June 2021, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Louisiana numbered close to 4,300 patients as of late May, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
“In robust programs once you have flower available the prices go down,” said Kevin Caldwell, the founder of CommonSense NOLA. “In theory that should happen with us, but the program is still going to have growing pains.”
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Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, who sponsored HB 391, which allows Louisiana patients to buy up to two and a half ounces of marijuana flower every two weeks, drew a comparison to neighboring states when he presented the bill during a committee hearing in April.
“Medical marijuana has been adopted in this form in Mississippi and Arkansas. What we are going to find is nobody is going to buy Louisiana product, and nobody is going to want it. You are going to make the people who want it have to drive to Mississippi or Arkansas to get it,” he said. “If this doesn’t pass, we are effectively killing the medical marijuana program in Louisiana.”
Magee remarked on the overwhelming popularity of the proposal among constituents and warned fellow legislators to act before falling further behind other states.
A poll conducted by the University of New Orleans in April 2021 found that 55% of registered voters in Louisiana were in favor of full marijuana legalization, compared to about 36% of voters who were against the measure. About 10% of voters did not respond to the question.
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Louisiana briefly considered a legalization bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Richard Nelson R-Mandeville. While the bill died on the house floor, Nelson said it helped drive the conversation forward in Louisiana and revealed a large amount of public support around ending prohibition.
“Before I filed the bill, the overwhelming thought was that Louisiana will be the last state in the country to do this,” he said. “Now the conversation has changed to maybe this could happen in the next two years or after the next election. There’s been a complete sea change.”
While Nelson’s bill faced significant opposition from law enforcement agencies and the Louisiana District Attorney Association, there is a growing sentiment that the state is slowly moving toward legalization.
Governor Edwards said on his monthly WRKF public radio show in June that while he believes the legalization of recreational marijuana is inevitable, Louisiana must look to other states for guidance before implementing it.
“I have come to believe (legalization) is going to happen in Louisiana eventually,” Edwards said. “We need to study it and learn all lessons learned from other states that have legalized it.”
Nelson believes that Louisiana’s laws were able to move forward this year because of the amount of progress seen in neighboring states and a general fear of being left behind.
“The federal government is looking at legalizing it nationally. Eventually, you will be able to buy it across state lines. The legislature was confronted for the first time this year that this may be a possibility within the next couple of years,” he said. “Popular opinion is significantly in favor of it and they have left the politicians behind.”
How Alabama shifted to adopt a medical marijuana program
After three years spent trying to get a medical marijuana program passed, Alabama became the 37th state to legalize the program in May.
The law, sponsored by Sen.Tim Melson, R-Florence allows the use of medical marijuana for 15 medical conditions and establishes a committee that will regulate sales and cultivation of the product. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall opposed the bill in a January 6 letter to legislators arguing that the medical benefits of the drug have not been proven and that in the rush to legalize it, the risks to patients have been downplayed.
The law swept through the state Senate in 15 minutes and withstood two days of debate on the house floor but made it out, said Chey Garrigan, the president of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association.
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It will likely be at least 15 months before patients can access the program. Some aspects of the law present clear barriers to both doctors and patients, advocates said. For example, before they are able to access the state’s marijuana program patients would have to show proof that conventional medical treatment or therapy had failed.
Proponents of the bill argue this could steer patients to opioid treatment before being allowed access to the program. Additional qualifying medical conditions cannot be added to the law without lobbying the legislature each session, said Melissa Mullins the president of Alabama Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.
“Having to wait for each session to lobby for adding conditions to this act is an unnecessary, ridiculous and inappropriate use of taxpayer money," she said.
Additionally, doctors will be required to finish a four-hour training course and pay up to $300 to participate. Despite this clause, a University of Alabama at Birmingham poll of 450 physicians found that 70% were in favor of legalized medical marijuana.
“There are a lot of eyes on Alabama to make sure we are doing the right thing. Overall, the bill reads like a good idea, but the rules have to be clarified,” Garrigan said.
The appointed 14-member committee will create guidelines for awarding licenses to cultivate and dispense the drug. The program allows for five growers and four dispensary licenses, which can operate three sites each per county.
Antoine Mordican, the owner of Native Black Farm in Bessemer, Alabama, and state director of the advocacy group Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana is vying for a seat on the committee to ensure there is equity in the program.
The cannabis industry has a diversity problem, he explained.
“I’m a Black man in the state of Alabama. We have been the most victimized by marijuana laws. I want to make sure the licenses are diverse and that the program has social equity. We need to make sure we are moving in the right direction,” he said.
Marijuana reform advocates in Mississippi continue fight for a program
In neighboring Mississippi, marijuana reform advocates continue to press for a robust program even after the state Supreme Court sided against a medical marijuana program that was approved by nearly 70% of voters last fall.
The mayor of Madison, Mississippi filed a lawsuit to nullify the ballot initiative (Amendment 65) a week before the election, claiming that due to a change in the number of congressional districts the ballot didn’t meet signature requirements, according to the state’s constitution. The state’s Supreme Court ruled against the program 6-3 in May.
Kelly Williams, an attorney based in Canton, Mississippi started drawing up plans for Kelly’s Green, a vertically integrated medical marijuana company dedicated to both cultivation and dispensing well before the vote last November. She closed her law practice of 15 years, hired a team of close to 15 full and part-time employees, and bought two properties to house her company. While the project is now at a standstill, she refuses to talk about Kelly’s Green in the past tense.
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“We were 100% foot on the gas moving forward with this,” said Williams, who also helped collect signatures for Amendment 65. “We formed our company model under 65, so it was a devastating blow. But I am confident a program will be created, even though we don’t know what it will look like.”
The proposed program would have been one of the most robust in the country, said Ken Newburger, the executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association.
It placed no cap on licenses for cultivators and dispensaries and allowed marijuana in all forms to patients. Newburger represents businesses in Mississippi that had already broken ground on facilities for growing, testing, and dispensing medical marijuana.
It’s all on hold, he said, “but no one is backing down, everyone is saying it is just a matter of time.”
“I think the whole reason why the ballot initiative came around was because there hadn’t been movement at the statehouse,” he said. “This has been difficult, but it has shown every single leader in Mississippi how much this matters to people here. They know now what they have to think about. It’s been a shift in everyone’s perception.”
Williams has retained her staff and meanwhile is waiting to see if and when a special session will be held to move the conversation forward. Gov. Tate Reeves, R-MS, shared his support of a medical marijuana program in Mississippi during an interview aired on WLOX-TV in early June.
“I support the will of the voters… I think we will have a medical marijuana program in Mississippi,” he said.
Williams is holding onto hope that his support will result in a program in her home state.
“The truth is very rarely does government lead. They wait on the people,” she said. “That’s what’s happened here.
Additional reporting contributed by Greg Hilburn with The News Star and The Associated Press.
Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.