LITTLE ROCK Voters have rejected a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Arkansas.
The proposal's backers wanted Arkansas to become the first Southern state to legalize such sales. But conservative groups challenged the measure, saying the proposal didn't clearly state that medical marijuana users could face the risk of prosecution because the drug is illegal.
With 91 percent of precincts reporting at 1:30 a.m., 52 percent of voters cast ballots against the measure.
The measure would have allowed patients with qualifying conditions — including cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease — to buy marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries with a doctor's recommendation. It also would have allowed qualifying patients or a designated caregiver to grow marijuana if the patient lives more than five miles from a dispensary.
Arkansans for Compassionate Care gathered more than 62,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot and successfully defended the proposal in court.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, which opposed the measure, watched results come in at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. He said throughout the night that he was "cautiously optimistic" the measure would be defeated, though the race remained close into early Wednesday.
"That gap has been widening slightly as the evening has gone on," Cox said earlier Tuesday night. "Not to call it a trend, but it does bode well for the defeat of this measure."
Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group that pushed to get the measure on the ballot, contended the drug could help alleviate pain for patients with certain conditions and diseases including cancer, glaucoma and HIV.
The group said dozens of doctors around the state supported its efforts to allow.
Cox's Family Council - which ran a campaign asserting passage would lead to abuse - noted a number of physicians opposed it, including the Arkansas Medical Society. That group represents more than 4,300 doctors and medical students across the state.
Earlier in the day, voters expressed divided opinion on the matter.
Mark Mariner, a 50-year-old operator technician with a utility company, said he voted against the medical marijuana proposal because there are plenty of prescription pain medicines and marijuana is "just another illegal drug they're trying to make legal."
He said it would almost certainly lead to abuse if passed.
"I know it would," he said with a chuckle shortly after casting his ballot at Henderson United Methodist Church. "Look at alcohol. They made it legal, and look at how much trouble we have with alcohol."
April Moore, a 37-year-old program administrator, said she believes marijuana should be legal beyond just medicinal use. But, she said, passing the medical provision wouldn't lead to that.
"Having it regulated and taxed would actually deter a lot of that," she said.