Five years after Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill that allowed cannabis oil for seizure disorders in Mississippi, proponents hope a ballot initiative will allow use of the entire plant for 20 different medical conditions.
"We're not talking about a stubbed toe or a little headache. We're talking about people who have very serious conditions like ALS, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, cancer... (and) allowing them to live more fully with less pain," Jamie Grantham, the communications director of Mississippians for Compassionate Care, said at a Rotary Club meeting in Meridian on Wednesday. "It's a ballot initiative to make medical marijuana available to Mississippians who have debilitating medical conditions in a regulated and safe manner."
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma.
Mississippians for Compassionate Care, a political action committee, has funded the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign and needs less than 30,000 more signatures to reach the 86,185 signature threshold to be on the November 2020 ballot.
Grantham, a Mississippi native, said she'd been compelled to join the movement to promote a better quality of life for qualifying conditions.
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"When you have something as debilitating as cancer, Parkinson's disease or a spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis... that affects every single part of your life," Grantham said. "And if there is something that God put on this earth and designed for us to use in a responsible way that could help with that then I think we need to be able to have access to it in a regulated and safe manner."
Most people in Mississippi didn't have any familiarity with this "health care initiative," Grantham said, making it a challenge to spread awareness throughout the state and counter a perception of recreational use.
"Any type of adult use program is going to be servicing people who just want to enjoy it," Grantham said. "That has absolutely nothing to do with this healthcare initiative."
In the proposed system, a Mississippi-certified physician would grant a certificate, not a prescription, to a patient with a qualifying condition. That certificate would allow a patient to get an identification card for medical marijuana at a cost of no more than $50.
The card could be used at state-regulated dispensaries to get their doctor-recommended products, which could include medicated creams, oral medication, tongue drops or even smoking. The Mississippi State Department of Health would regulate the entire program.
Grantham described a veteran in Arizona, which has a medical marijuana program, who had post-traumatic stress disorder.
"When he was able to have access to medical marijuana, enrolled as a patient in their program, his entire life completely changed," Grantham said. "He is now reacclimated to society; he has peace; he is getting to sleep at night (and) he doesn't have nightmares."
Grantham cited a study from the Journal of American Medical Association which found that states with medical marijuana programs had a drop in the number of prescription overdose deaths.
Because the federal government still lists the drug as a schedule I controlled substance, insurance won't cover the costs and a state program must be entirely within the state's own borders.
Despite assurances, Debra Munsell, a physician's assistant applying for her own license, sees potential for abuse.
"Those conditions that they mentioned certainly have evidence that cannabis products could help them but I'm concerned more along the lines of... smoking it because we know smoking marijuana is like smoking cigarettes. It has adverse effects," Munsell said. "But I'm also concerned (about) the chance for certified professionals misusing their authority... there are people out there just writing prescriptions. We don't like to think that that's out there, but that's what I'm concerned about."
While Munsell said she feels the majority of doctors would use good judgment, she wonders how the department of health would regulate them.
"But I have people that I know with those conditions and I know that they would definitely benefit from it," Munsell said. "But I have some questions about the regulation of the providers and the various methods of administration."
The biggest concern that Grantham said she usually heard was about legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
"Some of the pushback or questions I get are... the "slippery slope" to legalization (to) which I always explain that 34 states have medical marijuana programs and only ten of those have gone further," Grantham said. "Another one is probably it being a gateway to a harder substance but research shows that alcohol and nicotine are actually that. It's not marijuana; it doesn't cause someone to go to something different."
Grantham said that people respond best to the proposed ballot initiative when they understand how conservative and tightly-regulated the program would be and the effects it could have on suffering people.
"I think that that really helps them understand what we're talking about here because we're not talking about anything like adult use," Grantham said.
Qualifying conditions for using medical marijuana, according to the Medical Marijuana 2020 website, include cancer, epilepsy or other seizures, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, HIV, AIDS, chronic pain, ALS, glaucoma, Crohn's disease, sickle-cell anemia, autism with aggressive or self-injurious behavior, spinal cord injuries and similar diseases.