Arkansas medical marijuana supporters are back 

And they're ready to scrap with an old enemy.

click to enlarge David Couch image
  • Brian Chilson
  • David Couch

Last November, over half a million Arkansans voted to legalize medical marijuana. Another 30,000 votes, and Arkansas would have become the first Southern state to take the step. Though 18 states and the District of Columbia have already done so, many proponents at the national level were surprised that the vote in Arkansas was so close — 507,757 for a constitutional amendment to legalize, 537,898 against. According to David Couch of Little Rock, the lawyer for the Arkansas effort, "When people saw how close the vote was, a lot of them called and said 'We want to help next time.' " They'll get their chance next year.

The 2012 proposal was placed on the ballot through the initiative process, which requires the collection of signatures on petitions. But the legislature can refer three proposed constitutional amendments to the voters at each general election. A person unfamiliar with the Arkansas legislature might expect that the strong showing of support for medical marijuana would encourage a member of the legislature to sponsor such an amendment, acknowledging that it could relieve the suffering of some of the legislator's constituents. But Arkansas legislators these days devote most of their deliberations to the protection of fetuses and guns. Many seem fonder of the unborn than the born, and many would argue that bullets can end suffering more surely than marijuana.

To be fair, there are legislators more advanced in their thinking. Couch said in an interview last week, "We talked to some legislators about sponsoring an amendment. I think some of them were willing, but they all said the General Assembly is more conservative than the voters, and there wasn't much hope the amendment would be approved. So we decided to go the petition route again."

Changes have been made in the amendment "to address concerns that were expressed during the last election," Couch said. The amendment still will allow for the sale of medical marijuana at authorized dispensaries (38 of them statewide in the new proposal), but it will not allow patients or caregivers to grow their own. The 2012 amendment included a "grow-your-own" provision for people living more than five miles from a dispensary. "People thought it would be hard to regulate grow-your-own," Couch said, "hard to keep marijuana from being diverted to other users."

"Last time, Mr. Cox kept saying that out-of-state doctors could write prescriptions for medical marijuana," Couch said. "That's not true, but we rewrote the provision to clarify that it has to be an Arkansas doctor." ("Mr. Cox" is Jerry Cox of Little Rock, president of the Family Council, a Religious Right group, and a prominent opponent of the marijuana amendment.) "He also said that the amendment allowed for a lifetime permit. We clarified that provision to say it has to be a new permit every year."

In 2012, the amendment was silent on taxes. The new version says medical marijuana will be subject to all state and local sales taxes. "That could produce as much as $10 million to $12 million a year in new tax revenue," Couch said. "And that's net, because the amendment also says that all costs of operating and regulating the program must be covered by fees from dispensaries and users." Last year, Gov. Mike Beebe said he opposed the amendment because of the program's cost to the state. Couch said that when efforts were made to explain to Beebe that there would be no cost, the governor said he was opposed also because legalization of marijuana would put the state in conflict with the federal government, which says that marijuana is illegal, medical or otherwise. The reason the amendment requires special dispensaries is that pharmacies would be in violation of federal law if they sold marijuana. The feds sometimes crack down on states that have legalized medical marijuana, closing dispensaries and arresting buyers and sellers. Sometimes they decide they have more pressing business and leave the states' medical marijuana trade alone. It depends a great deal on who's running things.

And speaking of that ... last year, the Arkansas medical marijuana group was affiliated with and funded by the Marijuana Policy Project of Washington. The Project also supports full legalization of marijuana; opponents of the Arkansas amendment said that full legalization was the true goal of the amendment's supporters. This year, the proponents have affiliated with another group, Americans for Safe Access, which is focused on medical marijuana and is also headquartered in Washington. The locals have formed a chapter called Arkansans for Safe Access.

Couch said the Washington group chose its name specifically so that it could use the initials ASA. And that was because the federal "drug czar" at the time, during the Bush 2 administration, was Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman and a hard-liner who raided medical marijuana establishments around the country, denying pain relief to cancer victims and other sufferers. The all-caps ASA fought back with litigation. There are ASA v. Asa lawsuits in the files someplace.

Now back in Arkansas, Hutchinson has said he'll run for governor again next year, though he's already lost three statewide elections. He's been known to use the name "ASA!" in his campaigns. Next year, somebody else may be using it on their bumper stickers too.

Couch is, of course, optimistic about the new amendment's chances. Pessimists don't join this sort of campaign. He says that a different strategy would have put his cause over the top last year. "We outpolled them by 20,000 votes on election day. If we'd started campaigning and advertising earlier, we'd have gotten more votes in the early-voting period." But the Marijuana Policy Project preferred to hold money back for the closing days of the campaign.

"We spent about $750,000 last time, $250,000 gathering signatures and $500,000 on ads and campaign expenses," Couch said. "I expect we'll have at least that much again. To have a state in the Southern Bible Belt go for medical marijuana would be a boost for the national campaign."

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