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How marijuana laws have progressed across the South so far this year
As a region, the South has been comparably slow to embrace marijuana reform until recently. In the last year, Mississippi and Alabama lawmakers legalized the use of marijuana for qualified medical conditions. Louisiana has taken several steps to expand its medical marijuana program, including authorizing the use of cannabis in its raw flower form. North Carolina may consider a medical marijuana bill in the upcoming weeks, and South Carolina is in the process of debating its own version of the law.
The slow momentum hasn't always reflected the demands of the population. A vast majority of U.S. adults (91%) favored marijuana legalization for medical use. Around 60% said it should be available only for recreational use, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. Even in traditionally conservative states like Mississippi, an overwhelming percentage of voters favored marijuana legalization for medical use. Around 74% of voters approved the program initially in November 2020.
As these efforts progress, we take a look at how marijuana reform has progressed in the past year across the South.
In May 2021, Alabama became the 36th state to legalize medical marijuana. The program has been slow to get off the ground and includes some provisions advocates worry may be burdensome on patients and participating doctors.
For example, the program requires chronic pain patients to try opioids first. It also requires doctors to complete a four-hour course and pay a fee of $300 to participate.
The program is overseen by a 14-member regulatory commission, which will guide rules and licensing requirements. Business licenses for cultivators, processors, dispensaries, and testing laboratories won't be available until September 2022. Medical marijuana products likely won't be until later this year or early spring 2023.
In Alabama:Medical marijuana unlikely to be available before 2023
Arkansas was one of the earliest states in the South to approve medical marijuana in 2016 with 53% of the votes, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The program however was slow to unfold and products only became available in 2019.
This year, advocates for reform are gathering signatures to put marijuana legalization for recreational use on the 2022 ballot.
Canvassing efforts are underway to collect enough signatures for two separate initiatives. One petition is led by Arkansas True Grass, which started collecting signatures in November 2020. The group has so far collected more than 40,000 signatures, according to spokesperson Briana Boling.
Their petition provides no cap on the number of business licenses, allows for home grow and would expunge the records of anyone charged with a non-violent marijuana offense in Arkansas, Boling said.
Individuals currently in jail for non-violent marijuana offenses would be released under the proposal.
The second amendment being proposed comes from the group Responsible Growth Arkansas and is called the Arkansas Adult-Use Cannabis Amendment. The proposal adds 40 new licenses for dispensaries and removes the tax on medical marijuana patients.
Both efforts have to collect slightly more than 89,000 signatures by July 8 to get an initiative added to the 2022 ballot.
Louisiana took large strides in 2021 toward reform passing a decriminalization bill for possession of small amounts of marijuana or up to 14 grams. Now possession of up to this amount will result in a fine but no jail time.
Additionally, lawmakers approved a proposal allowing medical marijuana patients to buy marijuana in its raw flower form starting Jan. 1 of this year. Supporters of the proposal say that banning flower makes the program more expensive and inaccessible to patients.
Louisiana's program has been widely considered to be one of the most restrictive in the country. It has been limited to nine licensed dispensaries in the state and two cultivators. This year lawmakers are considering several proposals to expand the program. There are two different bills that would increase the number of licenses for cultivators (HB 566 and HB 767). Lawmakers have also debated increasing the number of dispensary licenses from 9 to 20 (HB425).
After a turbulent year and a half, when it was unclear whether efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be possible, Mississippi passed a law in February.
Unlike neighboring programs in Louisiana and Arkansas, Mississippi's program does not have caps on business licenses. It includes a tiered licensing fee structure that allows smaller businesses to participate in the program for lower fees.
The state will begin accepting license applications from businesses, doctors and patients on June 1. Depending on the type of license it could take up to 30 days for state regulators to approve.
In the meantime, a handful of cultivators have already begun construction on their facilities in the hopes of having products available by late 2022.
South Carolina lawmakers are still considering the "Compassionate Care Act," which would create the framework for a medical marijuana program in the state. The law would place strict limits on the number of qualifying conditions, which include PTSD, cancer and glaucoma among others. It would legalize the use of medical marijuana in specific forms such as topical creams, tinctures and edibles. Smokable marijuana would not be available for sale.
The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act passed the Senate earlier this year and potentially will head to the House of Representatives for floor debate thiweek, according to Kevin Caldwell, the southeast legislative manager for the Marijuana Policy Project.
South Carolina is one of 13 states that does not allow medical marijuana.
Efforts to pass a comprehensive medical marijuana law failed this year in Tennessee. SB 854 would have legalized cannabis for medical use. The bill however failed to make its way through the senate judiciary committee on March 23.
In Tennessee:Medical cannabis effort fails as Senate sponsor halts bill
The North Carolina Compassionate Care Act, which would have legalized medical marijuana in the state stalled last year. The proposal would authorize the use of the plant for at least 12 different medical conditions including epilepsy, sickle cell anemia and HIV, among several others.
Lawmakers could potentially take up the NC Compassionate Care Act when they convene on May 18. The legislative session adjourns on June 30.
"We will be keeping an eye out for it, but nothing is solid yet," said Caldwell with the Marijuana Policy Project.
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