OUR OPINION: Cannabis sales won’t fix Mississippi’s drug problem

Published 4:00 am Friday, January 27, 2023

With the first medical cannabis sales taking place in Mississippi this week, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for those who need a medically approved solution to what ails them.

And there’s no doubt about it: for people who have expended other options or don’t want traditional medicine, medical cannabis can be a life-changing treatment. Not only that, but the millions in revenue the plant is anticipated to bring to Mississippi’s towns are vital to the state’s economic growth.

But here’s the rub: The state’s mechanisms for entering the medical cannabis industry make it almost impossible for the average Joe to get involved.

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In order to open a dispensary in Mississippi, business owners must be able to pay about $65,000 to the state up-front. There is a $40,000 first-year license fee paid to the state Department of Revenue that includes a $15,000 non-refundable application fee, which means an applicant will not get that money back if they don’t get a license. The subsequent license fee is $25,000 per year.

That’s a pretty hefty amount for anyone to have on hand. In effect, it severely limits both the amount and type of people who could be successful in the medical cannabis industry in Mississippi.

For example, your average neighborhood pot dealer is likely already operating a successful enterprise — but coming up with $65,000 just to get off the ground, and then finding a storefront and employees and a supplier for the actual product puts the “little guy” at a disadvantage.

As a state with one of the highest incarceration rates and a prison that only recently emerged from a Justice Department probe, one would think lawmakers would make it easier for the small-scale indica entrepreneurs, as it were, to go legit and make money the legal way.

Instead, what’s happened in many cases is out-of-state cannabis professionals coming to Mississippi, taking advantage of the fledgling industry here and making a buck (or a few thousand).

It’s this sort of gatekeeping that makes Mississippi’s transition to legal medical cannabis particularly troubling. At the rate things are going now, from a legislative standpoint, it doesn’t appear that legalizing cannabis for medical use is going to make a dent in the number of people incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes.

Studies do indicate that legalized medical cannabis reduces the number of possession arrests, but it doesn’t make a difference in the number of people arrested for possession with intent to distribute or trafficking.

Mississippi marijuana distribution laws dictate that persons with 250 to 500 grams of marijuana with an intent to distribute face the same three to 10 years of incarceration and fines of up to $15,000 on conviction. The Mississippi Act also prescribes a penalty of five to 10 years of jail time with a maximum fine of $20,000 for 500 grams to one kilogram of marijuana possessed with the intent to distribute, according to mississippistatecannabis.org.

The penalty only goes up from there, with trafficking convictions being an automatic felony and a mandatory jail term of 10 years but not more than 40 years. In addition, the court may impose fines between $5,000 and $1 million.

For the majority of cases, it stands to reason that it’s cheaper and more cost-effective to sell marijuana on the street than it is to do so within the confines of state law.

All this begs the question: If it was easier to “go legit” in Mississippi, would we see fewer people incarcerated for a plant the state is now profiting from?