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There's a picture that instantly springs into most people's heads when they hear the phrase "medical marijuana advocate." For a lot of folks, it's one of a 20-something guy with dreads, a Bob Marley T-shirt, a poorly defined ailment and an assortment of interesting glassware on his dresser back home.
The reality of those advocating for medical marijuana in the state is a lot different from the stereotype, however. Many of those pushing for cannabis legalization are work-a-day folks, many of whom have heartbreaking personal stories of pain or the pain of a loved one. When a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in the state fell just short of passage 2012, failing with 48.5 percent of the vote, it was regular people driving the bus — collecting signatures, talking to their neighbors, educating their friends. Efforts to get medical marijuana back on the ballot are underway, and advocates say that grass roots work by small groups of volunteers who don't fit the stereotype will be crucial to the measure's success or failure.
One of those small groups is Van Buren County's Arkansans for Medical Cannabis. Formed in January 2010, with an average age hovering somewhere around 60, the group is pushing for full legalization of marijuana so that it can be both prescribed as a medicine and grown by Arkansas farmers. The spokesman for Arkansans for Medical Cannabis is Robert Reed, who lives near Clinton. Reed comes to Little Rock once a week to host the radio show "Cannabis Education," which airs on KABF 88.3 FM, every Saturday at 3 p.m. A 60-year-old veteran, Reed suffers from a degenerative disease that he said is slowly eating the cartilage in his body. He takes 11 pills every day for his various conditions, including painkillers. Though regular drug testing through his pain management clinic at the VA prohibits him from using marijuana as a medicine, he believes that if he had access to medical cannabis, he could take his daily pill count down to two.
Arkansans for Medical Cannabis, with a few dozen members, holds monthly meetings in homes and invites public speakers to the area. Those involved are decidedly not what you'd expect. "I'm 60, a disabled vet, and a grandfather of 22," Reed said. "We've got a disabled farmer who is 67. We've got another member of the group who is a retired highway worker who suffers from neuropathy. ... We've got a gentleman who is a farmer in Randolph County. We've got an artist who used to work for a brewing company. He's in his mid-50s. I think the youngest person in the group is probably 44 to 47, somewhere in there."
In 2012, the group hosted an informational event at the state Capitol, and has repeatedly submitted ballot initiatives to the Attorney General's office, only to see them rejected, the AG finding their wording either vague or ambiguous. (The AG has since approved two different ballot titles, one submitted by Arkansans for Compassionate Care and the other by Arkansans for Responsible Medicine.)
Reed believes the full legalization of cannabis in Colorado will have a positive effect on efforts to get medical marijuana legalized in Arkansas. Too, he notes, there's a libertarian appeal of passage that should resonate with Arkansas voters, no matter what their party. As Reed said, "When have you had enough of the government telling you what you can do, what you can eat, and what you can put in your body?"
With access to medical cannabis, he said, "I could definitely get off the painkillers. I live on a small farm, and I grow a heck of a vegetable garden. If I could grow it? Put it together: The taxpayer is no longer funding my medicine, I can't overdose with it. So what's the problem?"
Marjorie LeClair of Shirley, 77, is another member of Arkansans for Medical Cannabis. A retired operating room nurse who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, LeClair said that she first became aware of the benefits of medical cannabis in the late 1970s while working at a spinal cord injury rehabilitation facility in Little Rock. Many of her patients were prescribed Valium for violent spasms that could sometimes leave them writhing on the floor. After several of them refused their medicine, she learned that they were buying and using marijuana to control their symptoms.
"[I asked them] the Valium is free for you, and you refuse it? But you'll spend your last dime if necessary on marijuana. Tell me, why is that so?" They said for controlling the symptoms, there was little difference, "but the side effects of the Valium were such that they were so sleepy and drugged up that they couldn't do their therapy. The marijuana didn't leave them as sleepy and drugged up."
LeClair retired and moved back to Van Buren County five years ago. Remembering her experience with patients using medical cannabis, and wanting to help people during her retirement, LeClair began to read "every piece of literature I could get my hands on" and soon came to the conclusion that the prohibition on cannabis was ridiculous. Though the demands of her family and career meant that she couldn't advocate publicly for an illegal drug back when she was working, a retired LeClair decided to join up with Arkansans for Medical Cannabis. In addition to her work with the group, LeClair has proposed several constitutional amendments for the legalization of medical marijuana, proposals also rejected by the AG's office as too vague. Though she said she's never used marijuana (she doesn't drink or smoke, either), she believes in its power as a medicine.
"The more I learn," she said, "the more I realize that a big mistake has been made."
On Dec. 13, 2013, LeClair was arrested for allegedly receiving marijuana through the mail. After receiving a FedEx package that she said she believed contained cookware she'd ordered online, her home was raided by officers with a search warrant, including Van Buren County deputies. Though LeClair said she never looked inside the sealed box, she was later told by investigators that it contained over two pounds of marijuana. LeClair maintains her innocence, saying she doesn't know who would have had the package sent to her house or why. She adds that, as a widow living on a fixed income, she wouldn't have been able to pay for what amounts to thousands of dollars worth of marijuana, even if she had a place to sell it. A defense fund has been set up for LeClair on the website gofundme.com. "It's as much a mystery to me as it is to you," LeClair said. "The only difference is, I'm caught up in it."
Melissa Fults, who serves as the spokesperson with Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the organization behind the narrowly rejected 2012 medical marijuana initiative, said that small groups like Arkansans for Medical Cannabis will be crucial to getting medical marijuana legalized in the state. Like many of those pushing for medical cannabis, Fults and her husband, Gary, who serves as ACC's president, have a personal story that pushed them into the fight. Their son, who had been on painkillers and muscle relaxers for over 13 years due to injuries suffered in a car accident followed by several surgeries, was told by his doctor that the pills were destroying the lining of his stomach.
"The doctor told him, 'it's not a matter of if we're killing you, it's a matter of when. ...' He vomited blood every day," Fults said. "One of his doctors told him that if he'd just throw away all the medicines he was giving him and just use cannabis, he had a chance to live. So we got online immediately when he came in and told us that, looking for how to get an initiative started." Within two months, the Fults were the directors of Arkansans for Compassionate Care.
The ACC has 475 volunteers seeking signatures to put the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 on the ballot. They will need to collect at least 62,507 signatures from registered voters to qualify. Unlike the 2012 initiative, the ACC's 2014 initiative has excised a "grow your own" provision that proved troublesome for some voters, though this year's updated language does include provisions for low-income patients or their caregivers to apply for a "hardship cultivation certificate" that allows for the private cultivation of cannabis in limited quantities for those patients who don't have access to an authorized dispensary. The initiative proposed by Arkansans for Responsible Medicine, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act of 2014, has no such "hardship cultivation" language.
Melissa Fults, who is 59, and other ACC volunteers helped man a booth at the Arkansas State Fair last fall to get word out about their initiative. Fults said that some were surprised that a lot of those staffing the booth looked more like grandparents than college-age ganjaphiles.
"We were set up next to some guys who were selling security systems for houses," she said. "The second night, we kept having all these older people coming up and signing the petition and [the man running the security system booth] looked over and said, 'I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but y'all aren't what we expected.' We laughed and said, 'What did you expect? A 25-year-old with dreadlocks and tie-dye T-shirts?' "
Fults said that given the success of legalization in other states and new information about the medical benefits of marijuana since 2012, she's more confident that the measure will meet the approval of voters this go-round. The ACC is holding a series of educational meetings all over the state in coming months. She said getting neighbors talking to neighbors, much like what Arkansans for Medical Cannabis is doing in Van Buren County, will be an important part of the effort.
"That's kind of what our educational meetings are. Talk to your neighbors, and invite your neighbors," she said. "If they have questions, invite them. That's what we want. We want them to understand what we're trying to do."
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