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The medical marijuana push in Arkansas 

Activists work to gather signatures.

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  • REYNOLDS: Bella Vista resident credits medical marijuana with saving her life.

Making new law can be a forked path, and over the past decade, Arkansas's medical marijuana advocates have veered both ways. Currently, a coalition called Arkansans for Compassionate Care (ACC) is collecting signatures to earn its initiative, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, a spot on the November 2012 ballot. The coalition is primarily funded by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national lobbying organization that helped Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and other states pass similar laws. MPP lawyers helped draft the Arkansas Act, and MPP has donated nearly a third of the $22,000 raised thus far.

ACC is an offshoot of another political nonprofit, Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas, which tried a legislative approach in 2003 and 2005. The bills, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Jim Lendall of Little Rock, died in committee. In 2004, the Alliance also tried the ballot initiative route, collecting more than the 64,456 signatures needed to earn ballot representation. But former secretary of state Charlie Daniels invalidated 17,000 signatures due to a notary public error on some petitions.

A non-related group, Arkansans for Medical Cannabis, led a 2011 charge, supported by Sen. Randy Laverty, D-Jasper, to bring a different medical marijuana bill to the legislature. But Laverty failed to find a House co-sponsor, and the bill never made it to committee.

Still, Ryan Denham, a registered lobbyist and the campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, is optimistic

"I'm confident this will pass," he said. For the initiative to appear on the ballot, the coalition must collect 65,000 signatures by July. Nearly a year into petitioning, Denham said they are roughly halfway there.

If the act passes, Arkansas would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing doctors to write prescriptions for marijuana. Synthetic marijuana pills are legal in every state but because these are not natural extracts, they only contain THC. Natural marijuana has a myriad of other compounds thought to be medically beneficial. Denham also said that patients struggling with nausea may have problems taking pills. "If a chemo patient can't digest the pill, if they vomit it up, there's $200 in the toilet."

The initiative is modeled after the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, passed in 2009. "We learned from California and other states with not much regulation. Our act is 13 pages long. We think it has ample protections against fraud, for both the caregivers and the patients," Denham said. It outlines 15 specific conditions physicians could prescribe marijuana for: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Tourette Syndrome, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia and Alzheimer's. There's also a clause that prevents employers from firing a patient for holding a medical marijuana card.

Only patients holding cards issued by the state Department of Health would be allowed to purchase and carry marijuana. Patients could purchase the drug from dispensaries or, if they live farther than five miles from a dispensary, they could grow their own — up to six plants per patient. The proposal also has provisions for plant "caregivers," who could grow up to 30 plants for five patients.

The proposal caps the number of statewide dispensaries at one per 25 pharmacies (at current count, that would be 30 dispensaries statewide), and it forbids dispensaries within 500 feet of a school or community center. There's also a provision that allows counties or cities to ban dispensaries altogether. Convicted felons wouldn't be allowed to be patients, dispensary owners or plant caregivers.

ACC had to revise the initiative three times before attorney general Dustin McDaniel certified it, in May 2011. That's when the coalition began amassing signatures. Outreach efforts are underway all over the state, at colleges, concerts, shopping centers — "anywhere where large groups of people gather," said Denham. Some business owners, such as Doug McDowall at North Little Rock's Neighborhood Wine and Spirits, even keep petitions at the register. "The process is speeding up because we've grown considerably. People support this — even those you wouldn't think. It bridges gaps between race, class and religion," Denham added.

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