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Proposal would expand medical cannabis access in Arkansas

Jeff Barnard
A proposed constitutional amendment hopes to make medical marijuana more widely accessible in Arkansas.

A proposed constitutional amendment would expand access to medical marijuana in Arkansas, for those over 21.

The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Amendment of 2024 failed its first hurdle after Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected its ballot title on Monday. Despite that, supporters of the proposal vow to keep working to get it on the ballot.

Arkansas voters passed a law in 2016 legalizing medical marijuana for some conditions. The diagnoses needed to get a medical marijuana card are relatively severe, including cancer, HIV, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and PTSD. The new proposal would remove that list and expand access to the drug for virtually any medical condition or illness.

“We're opening [medical marijuana] up to more people who don't have one of the very limiting qualifying conditions,” said attorney David Couch. He drafted the 2016 proposal and based the list off required conditions off the most “popular” diagnoses at the time. This was “to include as many patients as possible.”

Under current law, only physicians are allowed to prescribe medical marijuana to patients. When a doctor prescribes the drug, the Arkansas Department of Health has to approve the patient for a medical marijuana card. This is an annual process that requires a fee.

The new law would make several changes. First, it would replace the word “physician” with “health care practitioner,” making it easier to get a medical marijuana prescription from someone like a nurse practitioner or pharmacist. Additionally, the patient would only need to have their card renewed every three years at a cost of $50.

Couch drafted the proposal in conjunction with the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). He said the proposed law would benefit both the patients and the marijuana industry.

“What this really does is make the medical marijuana industry like any other medicine,” he said.

The law would also extend access to non-Arkansas residents. An out-of-state citizen could get a card and patients visiting the state could use a card they got somewhere else in the country.

“That really helps the industry because it creates lots more patients that are customers,” Couch said.

Couch wanted to propose a recreational marijuana law, but he said the NCIA was partial to the medical legalization law. During the 2020 election cycle, a recreational marijuana bill was turned down by voters after facing backlash from marijuana detractors and supporters over the way it was constructed. The bill failed with 56% of voters voting against it. The 2016 medical marijuana bill that passed, had 53% support.

The current medical marijuana proposal hit a stumbling block in its first steps to become law. Its title and popular name were rejected by the attorney general. In a decision, Griffin cited issues with vagueness. He felt like terms in the law such as “medical cannabis” and “cannabis plants” were not well defined. He didn't like the construction of the enacting clauses and found grammatical issues in the text. The attorney general said the current draft could “mislead voters.”

If it is eventually approved, the group will then need to start collecting over 90,000 signatures from over 50 counties across the state. Couch says they plan to employ a group of paid employees to gather the signatures. Having worked on several ballot campaigns, Couch said he is fully confident the amendment will eventually be passed.

“Marijuana signatures are the easiest to get on a petition,” he said. “It's a popular issue.”

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.