In a distant and ancient past, the South — that deep-red Bible Belt, so solidly Republican Trump country that it took until this year for a Democratic Senate candidate in Texas to actually campaign — was a place where liberals were welcome. The South where the Democratic Party — John F. Kennedy’s Democratic Party — raised its presidents, where the brokers of compromise between coastal city-slickers and heartland farmers learned their trade.
This historical reality feels so remote now, in an internet-fueled age of partisan divides so deep they may as well be blood feuds (and they may be sometime soon), that it may as well be a creation myth. Just to add to the air of surreality, it appears there is possibly just one issue that unites America: North and South, East and West, conservative and liberal, we all like marijuana. And this includes in the conservative South, where both medical cannabis and recreational marijuana legalization efforts are real things.
The canna-federate states?
Following the successful lead of Arkansas, which legalized medical marijuana in November 2016, a group calling itself Medical Marijuana 2020 is collecting signatures in Mississippi, where it hopes to convince voters to do the same in two years’ time.
This is no outlier. In South Carolina, the cradle of secession, voters support legalizing cannabis outright by a nearly two-to one margin. Louisiana — which was arguably a purple state before Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans and the state’s demographics — a state lawmaker-approved medical cannabis program is slowly but surely taking shape. (As for New Orleans itself, it’s now a regular, can’t-miss stop on the medical marijuana business conference circuit.)
Tennessee’s major cities, Memphis and Nashville, both decriminalized cannabis possession before state lawmakers exercised a power move and undid their efforts. That lead to two other state lawmakers, both Republicans, introducing a medical-marijuana legalization bill with a cheeky acronym: The Tennessee Responsible Use of Medicinal Plants Act, or TRUMP Act.
In Texas, where Ted Cruz faces a very credible challenge from a Democrat who wants to legalize marijuana outright, the state Republican Party officially added legalizing medical marijuana to their official state platform.
And while it can be debated exactly how “South” Florida truly is — a state with so many snowbirds from the northeast won’t quite be mistaken for the land of Faulkner — medical cannabis’s strong support in some of the most conservative Congressional districts in the country shows that whatever frontiers there may have been for drug-policy reform are falling.
But Mississippi is special — they’re going far, fast. If it is successful, Mississippi would have a more permissive medical-marijuana system than New York State.
There would be no cap on the number of dispensaries, and patients would be able to qualify for cannabis if suffering from any one of a list of more than 12 medical conditions — including chronic pain, autism, and opiate addiction as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer.
In this way, anyone with an affliction for which cannabis gives relief would be able to secure access — again, something that is not a guarantee in blue states where cannabis is theoretically legal, like Minnesota.
Compassion or cash
As Mississippi Today recently pointed out, the list of Medical Marijuana 2020’s backers read like the attendance list at a Christian Coalition fundraiser: ministers, four Republican lawmakers, and the leaders of the state’s two most prominent conservative advocacy groups.
State Rep. Joel Bomgar, a Republican and a member of the organization’s steering committee, believes in the compassionate angle. “Everyone knows someone who could have benefited from medical marijuana or is benefiting in another state,” he told Marijuana Business Daily. But where compassion falls short, you can always rely on old-school conservative values.
“I think it’s an example of liberty and freedom,” said Jon Pritchett, president of a conservative Mississippi-based think tank, in comments to Mississippi Today. “From an ideological standpoint, I’m not a big proponent of, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, the government telling me what should go in my mouth any more than what should come out of my mouth.”
There may be another factor at play: money. As Marijuana Business Daily points out, Mississippi’s proposal is extremely business-friendly. Cash or compassion, the cannabis question is compelling some Mississippi lawmakers to go as far as to trust government.
As per Mississippi Today:
Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, said he supports legalizing medical marijuana but wrestles with reconciling his views on promoting individual liberty with reducing government regulation.
“I have struggled with this issue both politically and personally because there is this idea that we’re creating some more government here in order to (pass) this, and that really bothers me. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this with some of the others on the steering committee because I have tried to consistently vote against anything that creates more government,” Criswell said.
“But there’s such a negative connotation with marijuana that this is the only way I think this can happen… So I’m accepting some government control although it keeps me awake at night.”
Southern comfort level
It should be mentioned that for now, medical marijuana is as far as Southerners are willing to go — and they’re perfectly at ease with the government telling them they can’t smoke weed if they’re not sick. In Arkansas, the greenest state in Dixie, the state attorney general has six times rejected a proposed ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana.
And Mississippi has a long way to go before discovering its chill. Mississippi is the state where Patrick Beadle, a 46-year-old musician and practicing Rastafarian from Oregon caught with 2.8 pounds of marijuana during a 2017 traffic stop, faces up to 40 years in prison after being convicted by 12 white jurors in 25 minutes following a July trial. (The county sheriff’s department that stopped him has since been sued by the ACLU for allegedly targeting black motorists.)
Still, there’s no denying the progress made to date — and there’s no disputing in what direction the trend’s moving. Like kudzu, cannabis is taking over the south.