Political opportunity seen in uptick of marijuana ballot measures


LITTLE ROCK — After falling just short in a vote for legalizing marijuana use in Arkansas last year, advocates are mounting wide-ranging efforts to put the issue back before voters in 2014.

Six separate groups have submitted marijuana ballot proposals to the attorney general’s office for certification. Two of the proposals would legalize the drug for medical use only, as would have the 2012 proposal that narrowly failed by roughly 51 percent to 49 percent in the November general election.

Two others would legalize marijuana for recreational use and another would create a 10-year study on marijuana use and allow participants to grow the drug for agriculture purposes, such as hemp production, or use the drug for recreation.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has certified one of the medical marijuana proposals. Supporters for the other measures say they will rewrite them to address deficiencies noted by the attorney general.

Supporters cite a number of reasons for optimism, among them last year’s close vote in Arkansas, votes in Colorado and Washington approving marijuana for recreational use and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s recent endorsement of marijuana for medical use.

Twenty states currently allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

“I promise you, within the next year or so, the next election in some of these other states, there are going to be at least four or more going (to full legalization), and I’m looking at 2018 and the federal government throwing their hands up on it and legalizing it,” said Tommy Cauley of Bee Branch, spokesman for Arkansas Concerned Citizens.

That group’s proposed initiative, The Arkansas Cannabis and Hemp Study Act, would legalize marijuana for people 21 and older who want to participate in a statewide 10-year study on the drug’s medical and agriculture uses. McDaniel rejected the proposal earlier this month, as he had before, because of a number of ambiguities in the text. Cauley said the organization has rewritten the proposal and re-filed it with the attorney general’s office.

David Couch, attorney for Arkansans for Responsible Marijuana, which recently had the name and ballot title of a proposed initiated act that would legalize marijuana for medical use certified by the attorney general, said people wanting to reform the state’s marijuana laws see 2014 as a great opportunity.

Couch said every group that supports changing Arkansas’ laws backed the 2012 Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act. After the Arkansas election, and the outcomes in Colorado and Washington, marijuana groups that had worked together here began going in separate directions, he said.

“I think (passage in Washington and Colorado) has given people hope because three of the six are legalization measures,” Couch said, noting the difference between his proposal and the one rejected by voters last year “is primarily the ability of people to grow their own.”

The measure that was narrowly voted down in Arkansas, which was supported by Arkansans For Compassionate Care, would have legalized the medical use of marijuana and required the state Department of Health to set up a system of nonprofit dispensaries to distribute up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at a time to Arkansans certified by doctors as having certain diseases or symptoms.

The initiated act also would have allowed up to 30 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state but would have given cities and counties the option of banning them. The marijuana would only have been available to people with prescriptions for certain health conditions, including chronic pain, glaucoma, Hepatitis C and those who are terminally ill.

The proposal would have allowed limited cultivation of marijuana by a qualifying patient, or the patient’s designated caregiver, if the patient lived more than five miles from a dispensary.

Melissa Fults, spokeswoman for Arkansans For Compassionate Care, said last week the group is working on a similar proposal for the 2014 ballot. Several drafts have already been rejected by the attorney general.

She said the new proposal would limit marijuana dispensaries to no more than about 30 statewide, one for every 30 regular pharmacies in the state. It also would allow individual counties to vote on whether they want dispensaries in their counties.

If a county votes against the dispensaries, people in the county with prescriptions for marijuana who live more than five miles away from a dispensary would be able to grow a small amount of marijuana for their personal use under limited conditions and if they have a state license.

She said the amendment would allow caregivers for those people who live more than five miles from a dispensary to grow marijuana for up to five people, but also under limited conditions and state regulations and licensing. Fults also said most dispensaries would deliver to people within 25 or 30 miles away who are unable to travel.

Under Couch’s proposal, a patient with a doctor’s certification that he or she suffers from a malady included on a list of conditions that might be helped by marijuana could purchase the drug from dispensaries. The proposal would prohibit people from growing their own marijuana and requires it to be purchased from from dispensaries.

Jerry Cox, president of the conservative Family Council, said the “wave of interest … sweeping across the county” has sparked the increase in proposals in Arkansas. He said his group would oppose any marijuana proposal that makes it to the ballot.

He said the proposal in 2012 was rejected after voters “found out how broad it was,” and now that they have become more educated on the issue they will oppose any attempt to legalize marijuana for medical use or recreational use.

Approval for medical use would be the first step toward outright legalization, Cox said.

Robert Reed of Dennard, chairman of Arkansans for Medical Cannabis, said his group’s proposal would legalize marijuana for recreational use as well as agricultural development of hemp. He said laws regulating marijuana would be the same as those regulating grapes.

“Those laws are already in place to regulate personal consumption, personal production … and personal use of an intoxicant,” he said.

“Arkansas grows grapes, it’s a food, it’s a medicine, you can turn it into wine and I’ll bet a lot of people 50 or older have smoked some grapevine,” Reed said.

The proposal, known as The Amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to End the Prohibition Against Hemp and Marijuana, has been rejected by the attorney general because of ambiguities.

Reed said more proposals have been filed this time because “people are starting to get educated on the benefits and the economic benefits of that plant to the state of Arkansas.”

“We also came so close last year,” he said.

Fults said in addition last year’s election results, marijuana advocates are encouraged by recent comments by Gupta, the award-winning chief medical correspondent for CNN who in August reversed his position and announced he now supports marijuana for medical use.

“Ours is strictly medical, we have nothing to do with the full legalization,” Fults said. “I think we have the best chance we’ve ever had because people like Sonja Gupta.”

The two other proposed constitutional amendments that would legalize marijuana in Arkansas have also been recently rejected by the attorney general for ambiguities and inconsistencies.

Those include “Ban Prohibition of Cannabis” by Marjorie LeClair of Shirley, and “The Arkansas Marijuana Right of Privacy Amendment” by Little Rock attorney John Wesley Hall.