Medical marijuana is becoming a common ballot item across many states, and the option to legalize it will be presented to Mississippians this November in not one but two different initiatives. The two initiatives are strikingly different, which is most likely due to the source of each initiative's conception.
According to Ballotpedia, Initiative 65 was added to the ballot because the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign received over 214,000 signatures, but Alternative 65A will appear on the ballot because, as its name suggests, it was an alternative proposed by the Mississippi State Legislature.
Both initiatives limit the use of medical marijuana to each initiative's respective qualifying patients, but ironically, the legalization of medical marijuana will lead to a higher illegal use amongst non-qualifying people. The vast majority of people currently illegally using marijuana in Mississippi are not doing so because of a medical condition, so they will not qualify for its legal medicinal use. While perhaps a percentage of the illicit use will decrease, it will most likely rise due to the increased availability and the tight restrictions on qualification. The rise in its illicit use will also be notable in kids and young adults, which are age groups scientists worry will have their brain development damaged by drug use.
By legalizing medical marijuana, the initiatives will increase the availability of marijuana to the public as intended, but it will also increase the usage amongst underage and unqualified people. Both initiatives place restrictions on who will be able to use it, but if laws like that were completely upheld by the public, there would not currently be any illicit use of marijuana in Mississippi.
However, according to Turning Point, over 170,000 people in Mississippi have used marijuana in the past year despite it being illegal. A comparable increase in underage users' illicit use of substances can already be seen in the case of cigarettes and alcohol. Tobacco and alcohol are illegal for anyone under the age of 21 in Mississippi, but that does not prevent resourceful young adults and kids from getting their hands on it.
Underage people have been finding ways to circumvent the laws most likely since the inception of those laws. Fake identifications are ever-present in high school and college, or people have their older, qualifying friends purchase the substances for them.
Despite all the laws intending to prevent minors from having these illegal products, the American Lung Association reported tobacco usage by high schoolers increased to 31.2% in 2019.
While marijuana usage would not be as presumably widespread as tobacco usage in minors since marijuana would not be sold in every gas station like cigarettes, there would still be an expected rise in its use. Although it might not be as common as a gas station on each corner, dispensaries allowed by Initiative 65 or state licensed healthcare providers allowed by Initiative 65A will increase the presence of marijuana in Mississippi, making it that much more available for illicit users to get a hold of.
The reason the rise in availability and illicit use of marijuana in children and young adults is such a concern is because of the continuing brain development at those ages. While proponents of medical marijuana are hopeful in its promise to treat different ailments such as cancer, seizures and many others, marijuana's usage has been shown to impact a developing brain.
According to the American Psychological Association, continuous use of marijuana caused a decline in neuropsychological functioning which was equal to a decrease in six IQ points, an effect similar to the effect from lead exposure. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to those effects since the brain is still developing into a person's 20s, especially the frontal cortex which is responsible for judgment and decision making and is the last area to complete development.
Other studies reported on by the American Psychological Association have tried to counter by claiming those studies were flawed because they did not consider factors such as alcohol consumption or gender, or later trials failed to show the same results.
While the debate on marijuana's effect on the brain is continuing in a back-and-forth battle between different scientific studies, it is a well-documented and proven fact that brain development continues into a person's 20s. So, the effect of marijuana on the developing brain may be up for debate, but until it is proven one way or the other, it is better to go by the old saying "better safe than sorry" and limit the availability of marijuana to adolescents.
No matter one's opinion on medical marijuana, legalizing it in any form will lead to the wider use of it in Mississippi, legally or not. Children and young adults are the most susceptible to the potential dangerous effects of marijuana usage, and its increased availability will only provide more opportunities for those who do not need it, to find it. No initiative or law will prevent the illegal use of marijuana, otherwise there would not be any crime, but it is important whichever initiative or laws are enacted should work to prevent the exposure of marijuana at developmental ages.