The wording for three ballot initiatives concerning marijuana have been approved by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. Two would allow medicinal use of the drug while the third would legalize all forms of the cannabis plant. Now backers of the proposals are gathering signatures.
Four years ago voters narrowly defeated a similar proposal. “The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act” was rejected by about 30,000 votes, 51-to-49 percent.
The most contentious clause in the 2012 initiative was one that would allow patients more than five miles from the nearest dispensary to grow their own marijuana. This clause remains a key difference between the two medical marijuana initiatives proposed for the 2016 election.
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act seek to legalize medical marijuana for qualifying patients. Differences between the two proposed initiatives include the ability to grow marijuana, their regulating bodies, and revenue allocation.
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, sponsored by David Couch, would allow qualifying patients to receive marijuana through licensed dispensaries supplied by cultivation facilities. This amendment prohibits patients from growing their own marijuana because of concerns from citizens.
“We did a lot of polling since 2012. There’s probably 20 to 25 percent of the people in the state of Arkansas that will support a marijuana proposal that will not support it if it has grow-your-own in it, and it’s because they’re concerned about diversion to people who shouldn’t get it” Couch said.
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment would be regulated by the Department of Health and the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Couch says he referred to other medical marijuana laws to learn how best to regulate the dispensaries.
“If you look at other states that have medical marijuana laws, the dispensaries themselves are inspected and regulated by the Alcohol Control Board. There are a lot of regulations, inspections that go on with the sale of alcoholic beverages, so we put that regulatory aspect into the Alcoholic Control Board. All they do is enforce the laws in respect to the dispensaries,” he said.
The amendment has no specific protection for low-income patients. However, Couch says that because patients are not tied to one specific marijuana dispensary, the price of the medicine will stay low due to natural market forces.
The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, sponsored by Melissa Fults and the group Arkansans for Compassionate Care, says it is "for the patients, by the patients.”
Through this act, patients would qualify to receive medical marijuana after obtaining a recommendation from an Arkansas physician and license from the Department of Health.
Patients who live more than 20 miles from a dispensary will qualify for a “hardship cultivation certificate” that would allow them to grow up to five mature plants and five seedlings. The cultivation area would be subject to random inspection by the Department of Health.
Fults argues the grow-your-own clause is the perfect solution for patients who don't live near a dispensary, which is estimated to be less than 5% of those who would qualify for medical marijuana. She says asking patients or caregivers to travel more than 20 miles is “cruel and inhuman punishment.”
The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act would also set prices on a sliding scale and set a maximum price on patient licenses to accommodate low-income patients. Fults says accommodating low-income and rural Arkansans were priorities for the authors of the act.
"We made a promise to every patient in the state,” says Fults. “Not one patient would be left out because of distance or price and we made sure we kept that promise.” The act would also be overseen by the Department of Health.
Another distinction between the two medical marijuana proposals is their division of revenue. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment would divide sales tax revenue and allocate 10% to funding the medical marijuana program; 10% to the Skills Development Fund; 30% to the state’s General Fund; and 50% to the state’s Vocational and Technical Training Special Revenue Fund. Couch says the program would be revenue-neutral to Arkansas citizens.
The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act would allocate all sales tax revenue to pay for the medical marijuana program. Surplus revenue would be used to subsidize the price of the drug for low-income patients.
Aside from the medical marijuana proposals, the Arkansas Cannabis Amendment seeks to legalize all forms of the cannabis plant. Advocate Robert Reed says his initiative has been largely misrepresented by the media, due in part to the ballot title.
“The attorney general wrote the ballot title,” says Reed. “The first thing in the ballot title is ‘recreational and medical.’ The perception in the media, because of the ballot title, is that we want to legalize recreational marijuana. That is not the intent of the amendment. The intent is to end the prohibition on the cannabis plant.”
The Arkansas Cannabis Amendment would legalize the “cultivation, production, distribution, sale, possession, and use of the cannabis plant and cannabis-related products” for “recreational and medical purposes.”
Those interested in cultivating and distributing marijuana and marijuana-related products would be permitted to grow a maximum of 36 mature plants. Personal cultivation centers are not required to be “subject to public view” and would be regulated by the state.
The Cannabis Amendment would also allow for the release of any persons “serving incarceration, probation, or parole” whose only convictions were due to “violating state laws as they pertain to… marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia.” All criminal records in the state would be expunged of marijuana-related convictions that occurred prior to the date on which this act becomes effective.
Despite this amendment’s emphasis on legalizing all forms of marijuana for citizens of Arkansas, sponsor Robert Reed says he wrote this amendment with farmers in mind. Expunging criminal records of marijuana-related crimes, legalizing medicinal marijuana, and legalizing recreational marijuana are secondary.
Reed believes farmers should be able to plant industrial hemp, the cash crop that can be turned into fuel, plastics and fibers. Industrial hemp has Delta-9-THC levels too low to be used for intoxication, and it is the second-highest paying crop, behind tobacco.
“The Arkansas Cannabis Amendment deals with the plant and all things derived from that plant- including fuel, food, fiber, medicine, paint, and lumber materials.” Reed comments that by enacting this Amendment, “we put our farmers to work, we reduce the prison population, and we collect good revenue off the recreational side- which is the least of the benefits of this amendment.”
Due to the similar nature of the three marijuana-related proposals, some, including the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act sponsor Melissa Fults, worry the vote will be split due to voter confusion.
“If both [medical marijuana initiatives] are on the ballot, it’s going to be confusing. People aren’t going to know which is which, so they won’t vote for either one... In the long run, it’s not me that’s going to fail, it’s not [Couch] that’s going to fail, the patients are going to lose because they need this medicine,” says Fults
However, Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment sponsor David Couch encourages those in support of medical marijuana to vote for both proposals.
Robert Reed says due to the difference in nature of his amendment and the medical marijuana initiatives, their presence will not affect the number of votes his will receive.
The three marijuana-related initiatives are not yet guaranteed to appear on the ballot. The two proposed constitutional amendments need 84,859 signatures, and the proposed act needs 67,887. The signatures must be collected from 15 counties and declared valid by the Secretary of State’s Office before the initiative can appear on the ballot in the November election.
As of June 14, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment had approximately 45,000 valid signatures and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act had 107,498.
Robert Reed, sponsor of the Arkansas Cannabis Act, could not comment on how many signatures his team had received, as their proposal was only certified approximately seven weeks ago.
Should the initiatives appear on the ballot in November, they will need support by more than 50% of voters. Should more than one receive this support, the initiative with the highest number of votes will be enacted.
If these initiatives receive the required number of valid signatures, they will appear on the Arkansas voter ballot for the November 8 election.