Medical marijuana program development on track to meet constitutional deadlines

Published 7:00 am Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Mississippi State Department of Health is on track to meet the medical marijuana deadlines laid out in the state constitution with the recent voter approval of Initiative 65. Even if those deadlines are met, patients may not be able to acquire medical marijuana the first day medical cards are available.

The Mississippi State Board of Health met Wednesday to discuss updates on development of the medical marijuana program. Mississippi voters approved amending the state constitution to create the medical marijuana program in November.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said he is confident that regulations for the program will be developed by the July 1 deadline and cards and treatment center licenses will be available by the Aug. 15 deadline.

The state needs to develop regulations for the medical marijuana program for tracking and labeling, patient registration, interstate agreements, qualifications for caregivers, a patient database and advertising and marketing.

Board member Jim Perry said that even if the department meets the August deadline, qualifying members of the public might not be able to walk into a dispensary with a medical marijuana card and walk out with marijuana on Aug. 15.

Treatment centers might not be able to get licenses until that Aug. 15 deadline, which would make it difficult for them to be ready to sell marijuana to patients on day one. Since it may take until Aug. 15 for licenses to grow marijuana in the state to be available, and since those plants will need to be tested for quality before being sold, medical marijuana will not necessarily be available in the state on the same day licenses are available, said Perry.

Dobbs agreed that it is unlikely someone will be able to take their medical marijuana card into a store on Aug. 15 and walk out with marijuana.

Dobbs said to his knowledge it takes six to nine weeks minimum for plants to be ready for use. If the department can get ahead of the deadlines, then it will, but if the dates are met precisely then there will be a lag in product development, said Dobbs.

The Board approved a list of objectives for developing the program: enabling distribution, protecting vulnerable populations like youth and pregnant people, mitigating community impact, preventing fraud, develop a process to communicate with the public about the program, prevent drug diversion, prevent criminal involvement, minimize equity issues, prevent substance abuse, ensure fiscal sustainability and product safety.

The health department will probably have a series of town hall meetings to hear from the broader public, said Dobbs.

Chairman Dr. Thad Waites said he has seen many questions from the public about making sure the people of Mississippi benefit from the medical marijuana program, including economically.

Board member Ed Langton said the public should be wary of fraud attempts from organizations claiming they can get someone in line for a medical marijuana card before anyone else. The state is still developing a website for the medical marijuana program, said Dobbs.

Research and planning for the program began in November, and so far two bottleneck issues have been identified: having the IT system needed for sales and licensing and making sure there are in-state labs able to test product safety. Testing and lab regulations should be available for the Board to review in March, said Dobbs.

Dobbs will soon be traveling to other states that have legalized medical marijuana to learn more about their programs.

There are nine Advisory Committee members for the medical marijuana program so far, and those members will help determine who should be added to the committee, said Dobbs. Hundreds have volunteered to serve on the committee, he said.

MSDH will have to work with other agencies that deal with licensing for their expertise in licensing related to medical licenses, pharmaceutical licensing and agricultural licensing, he said. Waites said this means the state health department is not entirely in charge of the timeline for developing the program.