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Recreational marijuana petition finds widespread support

Steve Lancaster, attorney for Responsible Growth Arkansas, submits paperwork to Leslie Bellamy (left), director of elections for the Arkansas Secretary of State's office, and Shantell McGraw (center), assistant director of elections.
Daniel Breen
Steve Lancaster, attorney for Responsible Growth Arkansas, submits paperwork on July 8 to Leslie Bellamy (left), director of elections for the Arkansas Secretary of State's office, and Shantell McGraw (center), assistant director of elections.

Under new laws passed by the Arkansas Legislature in recent years, many political observers expected greater difficulty in collecting ballot petition signatures.

But Responsible Growth Arkansas collected more than 193,000 signatures for its adult recreational marijuana initiative – more than twice what was needed to qualify. The Secretary of State’s office is reviewing the signatures and, if approved, the ballot title will be considered by the State Board of Election Commissioners under a new state law.

“The process that Arkansas has put together to get one of these on the ballot, it’s difficult. It’s complicated. It’s not something that can typically be done at a grassroots level with volunteers. So it does take funds to get something on the ballot,” said Steve Lancaster, an attorney with Wright Lindsey Jennings who serves as spokesperson for Responsible Growth Arkansas. He appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics.

Of the $3.2 million raised by Responsible Growth Arkansas as of its June 30, 2022 financial disclosure report, approximately $2.3 million has been spent on the signature collection process. Verified Arkansas, LLC of Little Rock and Advanced Micro Targeting, Inc. of Dallas are the two beneficiaries of that spending.

With legislative changes enacted from recent sessions, petition gatherers had to follow several new guidelines, including but not limited to:

  • Signature gatherers must be Arkansas residents;
  • Signature gatherers cannot be paid by the signature; and
  • Signatures must be collected from at least 15 counties.

“In the past, you would see groups come in with professional canvassers from all over the country. They would hit the streets with their petitions and gather their signatures. This time, again, they all have to be Arkansas residents. We just didn’t have a body of people to perform that. So it was kind of built from scratch to locate and recruit, hire and train these people to follow Arkansas law. So that was really tough, especially for the early going, when we were just getting started,” Lancaster said.

Without paying by signature, his group paid canvassers an hourly wage.

“Now, we understand why that was done. The legislature was concerned about fraud in the process. There have been issues in past years. So we recognized that it was going to make things more difficult, but we embraced that. And we did what we needed to do to comply with Arkansas law but also get our signatures,” he said.

Responsible Growth Arkansas’ proposal would allow adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana but would not allow for home grown possession. It would create an additional 12 cultivation licenses. Coupled with the eight for medical marijuana, that would bring the total to 20 cultivation facilities in Arkansas.

It would also create an additional 80 marijuana dispensaries, on top of the 40 medical marijuana dispensaries, bringing the total to 120 in Arkansas. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries would receive a license to sell recreational, and they would also receive an additional license to open a new store for recreational sales. The remaining 40 adult use dispensary licenses will be up for grabs via a lottery system.

Critics of the proposal – even those who support recreational cannabis – contend that if the amendment qualifies and is approved, it will only benefit existing and bigger players in the burgeoning marijuana industry. Lancaster disputed that assertion.

“I don’t think that that’s fair to describe this as, the term I’ve heard is ‘the rich getting richer.’ It’s more a matter, we’ve got a group of people who are already in the industry. They’ve made a significant investment in what it takes to grow and sell these products. And it’s just an extension of what they’re already doing. It’s a highly regulated environment. We anticipate that it’s going to continue to be highly regulated. So we think that it needs to be with people who are familiar with the industry, know how to navigate the regulations that go along with it, and get the product out to people,” he said.

“Now, there are a number of additional licenses that will be issued under the proposal, both for cultivators and for the retailers or dispensaries. And so those are opportunities for new people to come into the market. And we think that that’s the opportunity for folks who are interested in the industry and have not yet had an opportunity to participate,” Lancaster added.

Lancaster also said the issue of incarceration for marijuana possession, which is not addressed with his group’s proposal, was discussed. Leaders opted to keep the proposed amendment focused on the business side of the industry.

“There was a consideration. I think that everybody in our group would agree that that’s something that should be addressed, but the reality of getting an initiative on the ballot in Arkansas is that it needs to be somewhat tailored and concise and as short as possible. We’ve got legal considerations about the length of our ballot title, what it describes. And the more complicated it gets, the more difficult it is to survive a challenge,” he said. “So it was a conscious decision. Let’s get this passed. One, we’re going to stop that it’s illegal to possess an ounce of adult-use cannabis in the state. So we think that that’ll be a beginning and an important beginning. And then it’ll allow the legislature to do its work hopefully to address things like expungement and social equity.”

A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey of Arkansas voters in February 2022 found 53.5% support legalizing marijuana for adults.

Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics.
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