The initiative's sponsors are making the same argument, saying that Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, an opponent of legalizing marijuana, is misinterpreting the signature-gathering requirements for getting an initiative onto the ballot. File Photo courtesy Arielle Dreher
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s top legal officer says the state Supreme Court should dismiss a mayor’s “woefully untimely” lawsuit questioning the legitimacy of the medical marijuana initiative that state voters approved by a wide margin last week.
The initiative's sponsors are making the same argument, saying that Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, an opponent of legalizing marijuana, is misinterpreting the signature-gathering requirements for getting an initiative onto the ballot.
Approved by 74% of Mississippi residents who voted last week, Initiative 65 requires the state Health Department to create a medical marijuana program by mid-2021.
Butler and the city of Madison filed a lawsuit days before the Nov. 3 election, arguing that the signature-gathering on petitions for Initiative 65 failed to meet state standards.
The Mississippi Constitution requires that the certified signatures required for an initiative come in equal number from the five congressional districts the state had when this requirement was written in the 1990s. Mississippi lost a seat after the 2000 Census, but the constitutional requirement has not been updated.
The state attorney general's office issued a legal opinion in 2009 saying that sponsors of initiatives should gather signatures from the five districts used in the 1990s. And in September 2019, then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the medical marijuana initiative qualified for the ballot because petition sponsors had gathered enough signatures from each of the five old districts. They ultimately gathered about twice as many as the total of 106,190 signatures required statewide.
Butler and Madison, however, argue that the initiative process is outdated because the constitution specifies that no more than one-fifth of the signatures may come from any congressional district, and that creates a mathematical impossibility with four districts.
“Even if their interpretative argument is correct, petitioners’ action is woefully untimely,” Attorney General Lynn Fitch's office wrote in papers filed with the state Supreme Court on Friday. “They could have asserted their so-called ‘procedural’ challenge years ago."
In court papers filed Monday, attorneys for Initiative 65 sponsors Ashley Ann Durval and Angie Calhoun wrote that Butler is seeking to abolish Mississippi's initiative process.
They argued that Butler is erroneously interpreting the state constitution and that if the Supreme Court were to agree with Butler, “it would have to invalidate the vote of 74% of Mississippians who supported Initiative 65 and hold an entire section of the Constitution inoperative, while drawing into question past constitutional amendments by initiative.”
Attorneys for Butler and the city of Madison wrote in court papers Monday that their lawsuit could decide an important point about the initiative process. They wrote: "Should we read our constitution to mean what it says, or should we interpret it to support particular issues we are passionate about?”
The attorney general's filing does urge the state Supreme Court to clarify whether the old or current number of districts should determine whether an initiative has signatures from enough places.
“As the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning, this Court needs to resolve that question here,” the attorney general's office wrote.
Initiative 65 will allow patients to use medical marijuana to treat debilitating conditions, as certified by physicians.
Legislators put an alternative medical marijuana proposal, 65A, on the ballot but voters rejected it in favor of 65. Supporters of 65 said the alternative was intended to confuse voters.