March 31, 2014 10:00:28 AM
OXFORD -- After two states -- Washington and Colorado -- legalized recreational use of marijuana, people were heard saying, "That will never happen in Mississippi" or "Mississippi will be the last state to do that."
Few realize it, but Mississippi was in the vanguard of states "decriminalizing" marijuana possession about 30 years ago, second only to Alaska.
A first or second offense for a small, personal stash (not in a vehicle) carries a maximum fine of $250. That's less than the fine for littering. No jail time, period.
Today, about 20 states have loosened or eliminated marijuana penalties, but Mississippi remains the only decriminalized state in the Old South.
Step across the line into Alabama with the same amount of pot and the fine is $6,000; in Arkansas it's $2,500. Fines are not high (sorry) in Tennessee or Louisiana, but all four border states allow jail sentences up to one year for one joint.
Who knows why Mississippi took this action? Some say it was because lawmakers didn't want to see their kids' names in felony crime reports (as was happening). Some say it was because Mississippians are libertarians at heart. In any event, the Legislature did it, and personal possession of "weed" has not been a big deal since.
In legal circles, the big issue as it relates to the big changes in Washington and Colorado relates to the conflict with federal law, which still bans the production or sale of marijuana for any reason, including medical.
This has even been an issue for federally regulated banks. Could First National of Denver lose its charter for lending capital to Don's Doobies, which openly and daily commits federal felonies? Today, bank regulators are saying they will look the other way, but what about the next administration?
Lawyers and judges like consistency. So does the public, generally.
But it's just not there, and not just in the pot context.
For example, the feds insist that only the feds can enforce immigration laws. States, such as Texas and Arizona, face federal lawsuits if they act to limit state spending on health care, education or other services to undocumented residents.
But federal forces have consistently ignored state authorization of trafficking in marijuana.
Of course, the whole history of intoxicants and narcotics in America is inconsistent.
In Mississippi a century ago everybody knew where the "opium dens" were. There was Christian sympathy for those hooked on narcotics, but no one would be locked up for ruining his or her own life by staying weirded out. As long as the addicts didn't bother anyone else, the law didn't bother them. Imagine. Not a single person in prison on a drug charge.
Then, of course, came prohibition. From 1920 until 1933, trafficking in or possession of liquor or beer nationally was illegal. Mississippi was more strict. Official prohibition started here in 1907 and didn't end until 1966, although during the later years liquor taxed in other states could legally be sold in Mississippi via purchase of a "black market" license.
Even when Mississippi went "wet," lawmakers told locals to decide. Under "local option" today, more than 30 of Mississippi's 82 counties, most right down the center of the state, are all dry or have dry areas. In those counties, a beer or a marijuana cigarette carry roughly the same penalties.
Clearly, freedom in America means freedom to change our minds, individually or collectively.
Most feel regulation and taxation were the twin motivations for changing the law in Washington and Colorado. As with alcohol, the "people are going to do it anyway" argument prevailed.
For several sessions now, legislation has been introduced in Jackson to permit physicians to prescribe marijuana, ostensibly as a palliative for pain-wracked patients. While extremely limited use of a marijuana extract in treatment of a rare childhood disease has been OK'd, other bills have never made it out of committee for a floor debate or discussion. The general assumption remains that there is no impetus for change.
That doesn't mean the Legislature won't surprise us. Remember, there was no public push and no public conversation about casinos, either. Then, one day in 1990 after lawmakers adjoined, there it was. Vegas-style gambling had been authorized as a new revenue source in a state where at the same time the Supreme Court was deciding whether bingo games in VFW halls were constitutional.
Stay tuned in.
The pendulum swings, sometimes pretty rapidly.