The Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics organized “Pot Goes Public,” a presentation and a panel of experts, Feb. 22 to discuss the legalization of medical marijuana in Mississippi.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Charles Mitchell, an Overby Freshman Fellow and associate professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi who hosted the event. “One of the functions of a journalism center such as this is to get the people who are in the best position to separate fact from myth and give that information to the public.”
Panelists included founder of Mississippi Cannabis Patients Alliance Angie Calhoun, University of Mississippi Chief of Police Daniel Sanford and the Mississippi Department of Health State Health Officer Daniel Edney.
Violet Jira, a junior philosophy and journalism double major and managing editor for The Daily Mississippian, moderated the panel in the Overby Center auditorium.
Mitchell started the event with a timeline of the Mississippi marijuana law, which was approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves last year, and the legalization of marijuana use in several other states. However, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a controlled substance, and its sale and use has been banned since 1937.
Even though the University of Mississippi is allowed by the federal government to grow marijuana and conduct research on it, use of marijuana — even for state-approved medical reasons — remains forbidden on campus. Because the university receives federal funding, it must follow federal law forbidding marijuana use, according to school policy.
However, Sanford indicated that even though marijuana use is banned on campus, possession of marijuana on campus by patients with state-issued certification cards is not a criminal offense.
“You have to differentiate between what state law allows and what university policy allows. You can’t confuse those two things,” Sanford said. “So if it’s (marijuana) a legal thing that they can own, then there is no criminal liability there because it is legal. They’re just violating university policy,” Sanford said. “It may be illegal through federal law, but I have no standing with federal law.”
Calhoun started her advocacy for the legalization of medical marijuana when she found it effective for treating the symptoms of her son Austin Calhoun’s debilitating epilepsy, nausea and joint pain.
“At the age of 17, Austin, unknown to us, was bitten by a tick that carried Lyme disease,” Calhoun said. “We didn’t know that he had been bitten by a tick. After seeing over 20 doctors in about 18 months and using 17 pharmaceutical prescriptions, my husband and I decided that enough was enough.”
After he son used marijuana to alleviate symptoms in Colorado, where it was legal, Calhoun saw his condition improve immensely. He shortly thereafter moved to the state and only recently moved back to Mississippi due to the new legislation.
Affordability was another hot topic of the night, a specific concern for Calhoun, who represents the interests of patients.
“We need to make sure that sick people can afford medical cannabis, because if we develop a program that is not affordable and accessible then this program is for nothing,” Calhoun said.
Due to the federal ban on marijuana use, insurance companies are not allowed to cover costs of its use, even when medically prescribed.
“Unfortunately, no third party payer (insurance company) is going to pay for the product,” Edney said. “They can pay for the visits if they are regular medical visits that incorporate medical cannabis as part of the overall care plan.”
Jira addressed the elephant in the room with her final question to the panelists asking whether they believed Missisisppi would legalize recreational marijuana in the coming years.
“I believe in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. It is a real medicine that helps so many sick people. But I have also stated very clearly that my face, my voice will not be there for the recreational program. Not that I am totally against it, but I think that it is medicine and we should treat it as such,” Calhoun said. “I do think that probably in the next five years we will see some initiative ballots come that will try to push it.”
Edney brought his history as an addiction doctor and expertise in the state Department of Health to answer the question.
“As an addiction doctor, I’m conflicted. As an internist I’ve seen it help people, as an addiction doctor I’ve seen it hurt people and everything in between,” Edney said. “But, when I compare the effects on the human brain from alcohol to THC, alcohol is far more devastating. From a policy standpoint, I can’t argue with the issue that, if we are going to sell alcohol legally and regulate it through Alcohol and Beverage Control and tax it with the Department of Revenue, it’s hard to argue against doing the same thing with cannabis.
“Give it some time. The (medical marijuana) dispensaries just opened last month, we don’t need to be monkeying around with the law yet until we get a year of experience. And when we change the law, we should be focused on patient access,” Edney said.
Edney believes too quick a transition to recreational marijuana would leave medical marijuana users in the dust.
“If we jump to recreational (marijuana) really fast, those trying to get marijuana medicinally will be caught in the backwash, so let’s give it some time,” Edney said.