Mississippi Supreme Court Bans Ballot Initiatives While Nixing Medical Marijuana

Mississippi's Supreme Court on Friday blocked voters from using ballot initiatives on a technicality while striking down a voter-approved initiative that would have legalized medical marijuana.

In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that because the state constitution mandates that ballot initiative petitioners must collect signatures from voters in five Mississippi congressional districts, while the state has only had four districts following the 2000 census, no ballot initiatives since 2000 are legally valid.

Since voters in the state can no longer directly weigh in under the ruling, the outdated constitutional provision cannot be changed unless Mississippi lawmakers decide to take on the issue. In addition, any other ballot initiatives that have passed in the 20 years since the districts changed would likely also be invalidated if challenged in court.

"Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of [the constitution's ballot initiative provision] wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress," Justice Josiah Coleman wrote for the majority.

"To work in today's reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court," he added.

The medical marijuana ballot initiative was approved by 74 percent of Mississippi voters last November. At least 228,000 signatures were collected from what had been each of the five congressional districts prior to the 2000 census, the same process that the state advised be used for ballot initiatives in the years since.

Justice James Maxwell wrote a scathing dissent of Friday's decision, accusing the majority of "stepping completely outside of Mississippi law" with a legal "interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi's citizen initiative process."

Mississippi Ballot Initiatives Medical Mairjuana Court Constitution
Mississippi’s Supreme Court invalidated a voter-approved initiative that would have legalized medical marijuana on Friday. This undated file photo shows a hand striking a gavel with marijuana flowers and hemp seeds nearby. 24K-Production/Getty

Medical marijuana advocates blasted the decision while arguing that the court had both undermined democracy and endangered the health of Mississippi residents with debilitating conditions.

"The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi," Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association Executive Director Ken Newburger said in a statement. "Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions."

"Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people's constitutional right," added Newburger. "It's a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn't matter."

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, saw his plea for voters to defeat the measure go unheeded last year. Reeves tweeted days before the election that although he believed there were "good folks on all sides of the medical marijuana debate," he feared "the most liberal weed rules in the US."

Mississippi would have been one of more than three dozen states with legal medical marijuana had the initiative not been invalidated by the court decision, while 17 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana.

Newsweek reached out to the office of Reeves for comment.