Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the first two medical marijuana bills into law Monday.
House Bill 1026 by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, extends the deadline for rule making from 120 days after the election to 180. It passed the Senate Jan. 19 after earlier passing the House.
House Bill 1058, also by Rep. House, passed the Senate Monday. It strikes a phrase in the amendment requiring physicians to provide written certification that marijuana’s potential health benefits would outweigh the risks for a patient. Instead, doctors will only certify in writing that the patient has a qualifying medical condition. The Department of Health will issue identification cards allowing patients to purchase the drug.
Because both bills change a constitutional amendment, they required a two-thirds vote of the full Senate, regardless of the number present. On Monday, House Bill 1058 received just enough votes to pass, 24-3, with seven not voting and one voting present.
“I was holding my breath,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View.
Irvin told senators she did not vote for the amendment, but it was their responsibility to make it work after voters approved it. She said afterward that the amendment as originally written put medical professionals in “a precarious situation.”
“I had heard from a lot of my constituents that were in the medical profession that just really felt uncomfortable about writing a prescription for marijuana,” said Irvin, whose family operates a medical practice. “That’s really not their role. It is not ‘a medicine’ per the FDA. By federal law, it still is an illegal drug, so there is conflict for those people with their (Drug Enforcement Administration) license numbers. … Physicians are not drug-dealers.”
The bill had narrowly passed the House of Representatives Jan. 17, 70-23-1, after its House sponsor, Rep. House, told legislators that many physicians faced liability concerns over saying the drug’s benefits would outweigh the costs.
In the Senate, the half-hour debate centered around the bill’s compliance with the U.S. Constitution versus legislators’ duty to enact the people’s will. While voters in November approved the amendment legalizing medical marijuana, the drug remains illegal in the United States, where federal law trumps state law.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he felt conflicted about passing laws regarding medical marijuana because he took an oath to uphold both the Arkansas and the United States Constitutions, a concern also voiced by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale. Rapert voted no while Clark voted present.
Rapert said Arkansas previously had enacted measures limiting abortion and banning gay marriages – both of which were overturned by court rulings because they violated federal law.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, an attorney, pointed out that the state’s motto is “The People Rule,” and the conflict only matters if the federal government enforces the law, which it is not doing. Like Irvin, he said he voted against the amendment, but he said the state has an obligation to administrate responsibly and protect physicians.
“I would suggest for us to be consistent, we ought to follow the will of the people until the federal government tells us otherwise,” he said.