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The medical marijuana push in Arkansas 

Activists work to gather signatures.

click to enlarge Kathy Reynolds image
  • 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.

Retired financial analyst Gene Remley heads volunteer efforts. He's worked with medical marijuana initiatives in the past, but "this time has been different," he said. "People know people who have benefited from medical marijuana, or maybe they know someone experiencing side affects from hard pharmaceuticals." He's seen more support among older voters than in his prior experiences.

Many people see marijuana as a gentle alternative to opiates or psychotropic drugs, both of which come with unpleasant side affects. "It is only logical that marijuana be available to help people with chronic conditions. Opiates slow thinking, cause severe constipation, make you depressed ... you have to take higher and higher doses, and then there's a withdrawal period," said Dr. David Crittenden, an internist at the Veterans Healthcare System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville.

According to Denhem, social aversion is largely due to conditioning. "Marijuana is much safer than some other options. Pharmaceuticals kill thousands of people a year. No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. You can't even say that about aspirin," he said.

And in some cases, marijuana is just what works. In 1991, at only 35, Kathy Reynolds of Bella Vista was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. Her diagnosis came with a 98 percent fatality rate. After an extreme treatment that involved removing and cleaning her bone marrow, Reynolds was too ill to keep anything down. She remembers the dates precisely. "From Feb. 19 till May 5, no matter what I tried, I couldn't eat. Doctors tried five different medicines, from antidepressants to I'm not even sure what. They were like shots in the dark," she said

A friend asked Reynolds' oncologist about marijuana. "He said he couldn't legally prescribe it, but 'if you think it will help, try it,' " Reynolds remembers. "The next step was to put me in the hospital and feed me with a tube."

Reynolds was virulently against recreational drug use. She was a physical education teacher and had never smoked marijuana before. She never found out how her friend got the drug, but after smoking it, Reynolds experienced instant relief. She asked for a Dairy Queen blizzard, and she was able to keep it down.

"My appetite was like a pump that needed to be primed," she said. "If I didn't have marijuana, I probably wouldn't be here." She only needed to use marijuana for a few weeks, until her body was able to accept nourishment on its own. Even now, she hates that she had to break the law, and she only recently told her aging parents. "They would have disapproved completely," she said. "But I did what I had to do to survive."

Thus far, ACC has encountered no organized opposition, although if the initiative makes the ballot, Renham expects the Family Council Action Committee (FCAC) to officially campaign against the initiative. This would require the FCAC, a conservative education and research organization, to register as an oppositional group with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, a step FCAC President Jerry Cox said they're willing to take. "We think it's unnecessary for a person to be able to grow or purchase marijuana, when the medicinal properties can already be acquired through prescription drugs [the currently legal pharmaceutical THC pills]. If medical marijuana is allowed, it will be difficult for law enforcement to control its use, and we believe it will lead to higher use across the board. And, as far as we know, no credible medical organization has come out in support of it."

If the act passes, medical marijuana advocates would face new hurdles. Since most insurance plans won't cover medical marijuana, it might be inaccessible to some patients. And doctors like Crittenden, who work for the federal government, aren't allowed to prescribe marijuana, even in states where it's legal.

But Denham thinks those issues can be addressed later. For now, he wants the people of Arkansas to be able to have their say. "Citizens have taken this into our own hands because the legislature hasn't been that interested. In some cases legislators didn't even show up for hearings," he said. "We've heard so many stories about sick and dying patients who need this medicine. It's un-American to lock up someone for using medicine their doctor recommends. And make no mistake, doctors do recommend this ... all the time."

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Charlie Daniels as a former attorney general when he is, in fact, a former secretary or state.

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