Christine Loftin watched patiently as the governor made his way around the 10th Inning Bar and Grill in Southaven, Miss., shaking hands and posing for photos with other diners. But despite greeting the rest of the room, the governor bypassed the table where she sat with her 16-year-old son, Bryan, who was in a wheelchair.
“Typically, if you’re a politician and you see a kid in a wheelchair, you’re going to acknowledge them. He had his back turned to us,” she recalled in an interview on Oct. 28 with the Mississippi Free Press.
Undeterred by the governor’s apparent slight, the Loftins decided to approach the governor themselves. They were on a mission when they visited the restaurant on Oct. 27, intent on confronting Reeves about failing to follow through on his promise to call a special session of the Legislature to create a medical-marijuana program. Though the governor once dismissed supporters of a robust medical-marijuana law as “stoners,” to the Loftins, it is a matter of life-or-death.
Reeves was facing away when Christine Loftin told the entourage surrounding the governor that she and Bryan wanted to speak with him. But Reeves continued walking. He glanced back a few times, the persistent mom noticed, but “would never turn around and acknowledge us.” Reeves stopped at his own table, his back still turned to the boy in the wheelchair.
Bryan tugged at his coattail.
The governor turned around, a seemingly surprised smile appearing on his face as he looked down at the boy. “How are you doing?”
Bryan extended his arm, handing the man a photograph. Reeves’ smile vanished.
“Thank you,” Reeves said, nodding as he averted his gaze from the photo, which showed the boy’s face battered with one swollen, black eye.
“He wanted you to meet him. We called your office five times, and nobody has returned your calls,” Christine Loftin said.
“I’ll take a look at it,” the governor said hastily.
“This is Bryan Loftin,” the mother continued, placing her hand on the boy’s head as he pressed his thumb and forefinger against the governor’s pants leg. “And he’s having a seizure right now.”
Medical Marijuana: A ‘Life-Saving Drug’?
Bryan Loftin has suffered from intractable seizures since he was 15 months old. He has mitochondrial disease, a genetic disorder affecting about 1 in 5,000 people that prevents the mitochondria in his cells from producing enough energy for his body to function properly. Some seizures cause his body to go limp, causing him to fall and sustain injuries—like the black eye in the photo he showed Reeves.
“If he’s having a particularly good, high-energy day, he might just have a few little seizures that last several seconds. And on a bad day he can have hundreds of those back-to-back-to-back to where he can’t get up, he can’t walk or talk, he can’t eat or drink, which causes other health problems,” Christine Loftin told the Mississippi Free Press.
Though he can walk with a seizure helmet on, the boy spends much of his days relegated to a wheelchair or sitting safely on the sofa. An episode in the wrong place could prove deadly. Bodily injury is far from the only harm he suffers, though. Mitochondrial disease has also caused Bryan to suffer developmental delays, his mother said.
“If your brain is trying to reset all day long, it’s difficult to learn. It’s difficult to follow a conversation,” Loftin said. “He’s a very active kid, he’s a very social kid, but his quality of life and our entire family’s quality of life is affected by his seizures.”
The family has tried almost a dozen pharmaceutical drugs, but “none of them have ever stopped the seizures, and most have created new seizure types or other behavioral problems or other health problems, so we’ve had to get off them,” Loftin said. Bryan has also tried off-label treatments, CBD oil and even a ketogenic diet, but nothing has worked.
The one treatment option left is also the one the Loftins believe will give Bryan the greatest chance at a more normal life, but medical marijuana remains illegal in Mississippi. She first learned that it could possibly help her son about seven or eight years ago.
‘You Just Drop to the Floor’
Though federal rules that still classify and treat marijuana as a schedule 1 drug make proper studies of its medicinal efficacy difficult, there is evidence that it can treat a variety of diseases, including ones that cause severe seizures such as mitochondrial disease or epilepsy.
Dr. Fran Kendall, a geneticist at the University of Georgia, believes marijuana can be used to treat Bryan’s symptoms.
“Most current data on the use of cannabis in mitochondrial patients is primarily anecdotal, but cannabis appears to provide symptomatic relief with improved seizure control and pain relief in treated individuals,” she explained in a 2019 presentation. “Some patients also report relief of gastrointestinal symptoms as well.”
The geneticist pointed to a German study that found that “exposure to cannabis can improve mitochondrial function in rodent models.”
“This study suggests that marijuana (or the activation of the brain’s cannabinoid system) triggers the release of antioxidants, which acts as a cleansing mechanism, a process known to remove damaged cells and improve the efficiency of mitochondria,” Kendall explained. “This animal based study is preliminary, and results may or may not translate into humans.”
She also cited a study of adults and children with severe forms of epilepsy. “Convulsive seizures fell by 53% in the 23 participating patients with Dravet syndrome and 11 patients with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome had a 55% decline in ‘atonic’ seizures which cause a sudden loss of muscle tone,” she reported.
Though federal rules make official data on marijuana’s use to treat her son’s condition sparse, Christine Loftin said she has spoken to other families who have used it successfully to treat mitochondrial disease.
“I cannot say with 10,000% certainty it’s going to fix this, but I have been studying this and talking to families for seven or eight years now, and I haven’t come across anyone who has had no luck at all (with medical marijuana),” Loftin said. “If it hasn’t cured at least some of their seizures, there is a severe reduction and improvement in quality of life, so we need this.”
Moving to a state like Colorado where her son could obtain medical-marijuana treatment has not been an option, though, both for financial and family reasons. And while it would be possible to obtain marijuana illegally in Mississippi, Loftin said she does not consider that an option because, as Bryan’s primary caregiver, she knows that doing so could cause her to lose custody of him—even if she did it to save her son’s life.
“When I call medical marijuana life-saving medication, and they question how this saves your life, well he has atonic seizures which means you just lose all control in your body, and you just drop to the floor,” Loftin said. “He’s had a fractured skull from that. He’s had numerous black eyes and facial lacerations.”
A year ago this week, she had reason to believe that, by now, she would no longer have to choose between keeping custody of Bryan or procuring a treatment that could save his life.
‘They Voted For Him To Have a Better Quality of Life’
On Nov. 3, 2020, Bryan Loftin’s mother felt as if the weight of the world had suddenly lifted off of her shoulders. Nearly 69% of Mississippi voters had approved a ballot proposal legalizing and implementing a regulated medical-marijuana program.
A little over two years earlier in mid-2018, Ashley Durval, whose own child has a rare form of epileptic seizures known as Dravet Syndrome, filed the petition that kicked off the ballot-initiative drive. For a year, supporters of the effort known as Initiative 65 gathered about 228,000 signatures from Mississippians in order to bypass legislative inaction on the issue and put it before voters on the 2020 ballot.
Over the course of a two-year campaign, Christine Loftin, like other parents and patients with various conditions that medical marijuana could be used to treat, shared the story of Bryan’s struggles with strangers and acquaintances alike. Some of those conversations, she said, began with people who had planned to vote against Initiative 65 but changed their minds after hearing her son’s story.
“That was so emotional knowing that so many people from the top of the state to the bottom of the state knew who my child was and they voted for him to have a better quality of life,” Loftin said.
“When your governor is out there stating that it’s all these potheads who want this, I felt it was so important for people who were on the fence or who were opposed to it to see that’s not who it’s for,” she added later. “Bryan is who it’s for. This is a child who’s done nothing to anyone, and he has so much life and so much energy and so much positivity to give the world. And he needs this medication.”
Before the election, the Mississippi Legislature, fearing Initiative 65 was too broad and did not give lawmakers enough control over its implementation, amended the ballot question to split it into two parts. That gave pro-medical marijuana voters the option of either Initiative 65 or Alternative 65A. If the second option had succeeded, it would have given lawmakers the ability to impose greater limits and regulations on the program, potentially making it more difficult for some people to obtain treatment.
On Election Day 2020, though, 74% of the pro-medical marijuana voters rejected the Legislature’s option and selected the first option—Initiative 65. Not only had voters approved medical marijuana, but they had selected the most robust, accessible option. Until that night, Christine Loftin had feared there were no options left for treating her son.
“I know with seizures you have to get the (medical marijuana) dosing correct, but there was hope. I had hope, finally, for the first time in years,” she said.
‘Our Fine Leaders Decided To Take It Back’
If voters’ wishes had been fulfilled, Mississippi’s medical-marijuana program would have begun operations in earnest by August 2021. But one opponent of the program, Madison, Miss., Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, did not give up hope of keeping medical-marijuana dispensaries, which she called “pot shops,” out of her town even after her own county voted 60%-34% to legalize it.
Butler filed a lawsuit, arguing that state courts should not only throw out the voter-approved medical marijuana law, but should do so by invalidating Mississippi’s entire ballot-initiative process on a technicality.
When voters approved the creation of a citizen-led ballot-initiative process in 1992, the law said they must gather signatures proportionally from each of the state’s five congressional districts. But due to slow population growth, Mississippi lost a congressional district after the 2000 election, making it technically impossible to gather signatures from five congressional districts.
But Mississippi’s top election officials, including current Secretary of State Michael Watson, believed the ballot-initiative process was still valid so long as petitioners collected signatures from each of the former five congressional districts as the lines existed before 2000 redistricting. Initiative 65 petitioners did so, collecting more than twice as many signatures as required to put an issue on the ballot from across the state.
But on May 14, 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with Butler’s argument, reasoning that the Initiative 65 petitioners did not meet the “prerequisites in the law” and ruling that “the ballot-initiative process cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress.” It was the second time in 99 years that the Mississippi Supreme Court had agreed to a politician’s request to strike down the right of citizens to put issues on the ballot themselves.
For Butler, the ruling represented a victory to keep her town free of legal medical marijuana. For the Loftins, the ruling was yet another crushing blow.
“I rode that hope for a while until our fine leaders decided to take it back, and I was, I don’t even want to say disappointed,” Christine Loftin told the Mississippi Free Press. “I was furious, angry, mad, I wanted to scream—all range of emotions on that end of the spectrum—that they decided because of a technicality that they knew was there all along that they were going to deny (Bryan) the medication he needs to save his life.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision means that, for now, medical-marijuana advocates’ only hope is for the conservative Mississippi Legislature to pass a law legalizing medical marijuana. The court’s May 2021 decision came less than a month-and-a-half after the Legislature adjourned the 2021 legislative session. Unless Gov. Reeves calls a special session of the Legislature to address the issue, it would not happen until sometime after lawmakers returned to the Capitol in January 2022.
‘We’re Just Waiting on the Governor’
Despite Reeves’ prior reluctance on the issue, the 2020 election had revealed a rare, bipartisan consensus among Mississippi voters that medical marijuana should be legal and accessible as a treatment option. In June, the governor vowed to address the issue in a special session as soon as lawmakers presented him with a bill.
“Next week is not likely but clearly, it should be sooner rather than later,” Reeves said in mid-June 2021.
Legislative leaders and fellow lawmakers went to work to do their part to help Reeves make good on his vow, holding hearings and drafting a bill to craft a medical-marijuana program. They completed work on the first draft of the legislation in September.
Mississippi Sen. Kevin Blackwell, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee that is overseeing the effort in the Senate, told the Mississippi Free Press on Nov. 1 that lawmakers and leaders in both chambers are in broad agreement on the bill.
“The Senate and the House have been ready to go,” Blackwell said. “We’re just waiting on the governor. He had indicated in the past that when we had an agreement between the Senate and the House, he would consider calling a special session. We have had that agreement, and we’re willing to address it.”
Christine Loftin told the Mississippi Free Press that she has not been able to read the various drafts of the legislation for herself and has instead relied on others to keep her informed.
“As a parent with three kids and a special-needs child, I just cannot fight all day every day. I can’t do it. And without the people’s support, there’s no way we can be where we are,” she said.
The proposed legislation is not as robust as the program Mississippians voted to adopt last year. The bill would cap THC levels in medical marijuana at 60%; limit doses to 4 ounces instead of the 5 ounces allowed under Initiative 65; and add a 5% excise tax when dispensaries purchase it from processors on top of the regular 7% sales tax end users would also pay.
“I don’t know that it was in the best interest of the patients because from what I understand there are some significant caps on the amount of THC. … Bryan or people who have seizures a lot of times need higher THC,” Loftin said in the interview. “So even if they pass this, we are still going to have obstacles with that. But at this point, I hate to say they got what they wanted because the people will be happy with something rather than nothing, when actually the way the original bill was was much better for patients.”
But one obstacle remains even for the creation of a more limited medical-marijuana program, Blackwell said: the governor’s continued dissatisfaction with the proposal. Reeves believes lawmakers have made medical marijuana too accessible and that THC levels and dosing quantities should be limited even further.
“The Senate and House came to an agreement a month and a half ago, and we presented the bill to the governor’s office,” Blackwell said. “His office had some clarifications they wanted us to address. We did almost all but one of them, and that was related to the THC level. They wanted it reduced, and we pretty much affirmed that we did all we think we’re going to do to reduce it.
“You reduce it too much, you actually have an ineffective program. People have to have a certain percentage, access to a certain amount, and I think we were pretty conservative with the amount since we came in and lowered the amount to 4 ounces from five that was in the 65 proposal.”
Despite those reductions from the defunct voter-approved law and other concessions to address Reeves’ concerns in more recent drafts of the bill, the governor has not budged.
‘I Don’t Want A Recreational Marijuana Program’
“Really, the one key piece that is left with respect to how much marijuana can any one individual get at any one point in time and what is the THC content of that marijuana?” Reeves told reporters during a Nov. 1 press conference.
“Because we don’t want a recreational-marijuana program, I don’t believe the people of Mississippi want a recreational-marijuana program, and I don’t want a recreational-marijuana program in our state.”
Neither Initiative 65 nor the more-limited current proposal amount to the legalization of “recreational” marijuana, however. Under the current draft, the Mississippi State Department of Health would oversee the medical-marijuana program, and qualifying patients with certain medical conditions would have to obtain a doctor’s approval before they could obtain the medicine.
Christine Loftin said she believes Gov. Reeves may be “uneducated and uninformed” and “has not taken the time to do his homework.” She can identify with that, she said.
“For so long, these generations here have been poisoned to think (marijuana) was bad,” Loftin said. “When I was growing up, I thought it was bad. My father worked in law enforcement. Marijuana is bad, that’s what they tell you. But when you have a child who needs it for medical purposes, and you start doing your homework, no, it’s not bad. It’s not what they say it is.”
If the governor does not call a special session, Blackwell said, lawmakers will address the issue when they return to Jackson for the 2022 legislative session in January. The regular session presents some challenges because of the variety of other issues that would be at play and the large presence of lobbyists with competing concerns.
Medical-marijuana advocates want the issue addressed sooner than that. Every day without a medical-marijuana program is another in which patients who could obtain relief, including some with terminal illnesses like late-stage cancer, continue to suffer. But they also fear the issue could get lost amid the chaos of a packed regular session in which lawmakers plan to also address other heavy issues, including a proposal to eliminate the state income tax.
But Blackwell said he believes legislators are committed to approving the medical-marijuana bill.
“This is my sixth year, and this bill has been the most transparent bill that I have seen in my six years. We’re putting things out, we’ve put several drafts out, we’ve put the latest draft out and basically are receiving public comment left and right. We don’t generally do that with bills,” he said.
“We have listened to all the organizations and groups and individuals that have come to us and tried to balance their requests. So from that end, I think we’ve basically done all we could. Now politics is politics, and who knows what can happen in January if this goes that far.”
During the regular session, Blackwell said, lawmakers will work to revive a ballot-initiative law, but could modify it from the 1992 law. In this theoretical new ballot initiative process, voter-approved initiatives would amend the state code instead of the Mississippi Constitution. That would give lawmakers the ability to amend voter-approved laws, which they could not have done with Initiative 65.
“I’m probably a little more hesitant to do something constitutional based upon the fact that once it goes in the constitution, the only way you can change it is another statewide election,” Blackwell said.
Christine Loftin told the Mississippi Free Press that she has spoken with Sen. Blackwell, but she has grown cynical about the legislative process and does not know if she trusts that a medical-marijuana program will come to fruition.
“My belief is that this whole holdup is about politics, money, greed and all of the things that government is all about,” she said, adding that she does not consider herself a Republican or a Democrat. “I’d love to give them the benefit of the doubt that that’s not what it’s about.”
‘He Had To See Bryan’
On the day Christine Loftin took Bryan to meet Gov. Reeves, she tried to explain to the governor that politics was not her concern; her child was her concern.
“I don’t really care what the politics are, my kid needs this medication. And both sides have said they’ve agreed on a new bill and they’re waiting on you to call a session,” she recalled telling the governor. “And all he could say was, ‘Thank you, we’re working on it.’ Again I asked. ‘Thank you, we’re working on it.’ And then a few people nearby asked him. ‘Thank you, we’re working on it.’
“He just kept repeating the same phrase. He couldn’t say anything else. So at that point, we just made sure he had the picture in his hand, and then we walked off because that’s the kind of person I am. I’m not going to cause a riot in a restaurant.”
— Christine Loftin (@ChristineMomto3) October 28, 2021
Even if she did not change the governor’s mind, Loftin says it was important to ensure he had to come face-to-face with her son.
“He had to see Bryan, he had to see Bryan’s face in that picture,” she said. “And my hope is he never forgets that—that when he wakes up every morning, he sees this kid with a black eye; and when he goes to bed, every night, he sees this kid with a black eye; and every time he sees somebody with a black eye, he thinks of my child and how he is holding up the process of us getting our medication.”