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Advocates work to get 3 'pot' ideas on ballot

by Brian Fanney | December 20, 2015 at 4:06 a.m.
Medical marijuana proposal information.

Advocates for medical marijuana ballot proposals have split over whether to allow patients to grow their own plants.

The disagreement in philosophy between former partners Melissa Fults, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, and Little Rock lawyer David Couch means they're pushing different ballot measures that support a degree of "pot" legalization.

The two were behind the 2012 Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, which failed after receiving 49 percent of the vote in that year's general election.

Fults and Couch say that over the past three years, residents have become more likely to support medical-marijuana legalization. In that time, at least seven states have legalized a form of medical marijuana. Additionally, five states and the District of Columbia legalized its recreational use.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states and Washington, D.C., have laws allowing medical marijuana. Five states and Washington, D.C., also allow its recreational use.

Fults supports the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, and signatures are being gathered to get the proposed act on the 2016 ballot.

Couch supports the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that has failed in one attempt to get approval from the state attorney general's office. The attorney general must approve an initiated measure's popular name and ballot title before supporters can begin gathering signatures to get the proposal on the ballot.

Fults and Couch split in 2013 over differing ideas about how medical-marijuana legalization should be implemented and what voters would be likely to approve.

Under Fults' proposal, a patient with a "Hardship Cultivation Certificate" would be able to grow up to 10 cannabis plants in an enclosed, locked facility. A dedicated caregiver would be allowed to cultivate the plants.

"Hardship Cultivation Certificates" would be provided by the Arkansas Department of Health "based on documentation of the Qualifying Patient's lack of access to a Nonprofit Cannabis Care Center," according to the proposal.

"Ours is designed to make sure there's a safe and restricted access for patients -- and affordability. If patients can't afford it, it doesn't do a lot of good to have the initiative passed," Fults said in an interview. "I promised before we ever did this initiative, that no patient would go without their medication because of distance or because of affordability."

Under Fults' measure, nonprofit centers would serve as dispensaries.

"Ours is more designed to protect the patient and the citizens around the patient," she said. "His is more designed to make money."

But Couch said the state is not ready for the "grow-your-own" provision, and that could decrease the likelihood that a medical-marijuana provision would pass.

"The theory behind the 'grow your own' is a lot of people are not going to be able to afford that, and I agree with that," Couch said in an interview. "The counterargument to that is if you allow people to grow five marijuana plants in their house, it's going to grow more marijuana than what they can use or need. What's going to happen to the rest of it?"

Couch's measure does not specify how dispensaries can be run, but it would limit the number to 40 in the state. The Arkansas Beverage Control Division of the Department of Finance and Administration would inspect the dispensaries.

"I tried to set up a system that's really tight, and I think I did," he said. "As an advocate of the use of medical marijuana, I think that people should be able to grow a limited amount of medical marijuana for their own use, but I don't think a majority of people in the state of Arkansas agree with that provision."

If voters approved two conflicting ballot measures, the one with more votes would become law, said Chris Powell, spokesman for the secretary of state's office.

Couch said he doesn't personally have a problem with the "grow-your-own" provision, but he doesn't think a majority of Arkansans will get behind it.

Fults said she thinks competing measures could confuse voters.

"I don't understand why he thinks there should be a second one," she said.

But Couch faces several challenges to get his measure on the ballot.

Couch's proposed constitutional amendment was rejected by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge earlier this month. He said he will edit it and resubmit it. If approved by Rutledge's office, he will then need to collect about 85,000 valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

Fults is already gathering signatures for her proposal. After several attempts, the initiated act's popular name and ballot title were approved for the ballot by then-Attorney General Dustin McDaniel at the end of 2014. She said she has about 50,000 signatures. Initiated acts require fewer signatures than proposed constitutional amendments do to get on the ballot. Fults will need about 68,000 valid signatures to get her proposal on the ballot.

Fults has two campaigns going at the same time. The resident of East End also is running for the District 27 Arkansas House of Representatives seat held by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-East End.

When asked about a third proposed ballot measure -- submitted by Mary Berry of Summit -- that would allow all marijuana use, Fults said she thought full legalization would be "careless."

The attorney general's office has rejected Berry's measure seven times for a variety of reasons, including ambiguity, and because of spelling and grammar errors.

Berry could not be reached for comment. The attorney general's office did not have a phone number or email address for her. She did not appear to have a listed phone number.

"I'm sorry, I have teenage grandchildren," Fults said. "I don't want carte blanche for everyone in the state to get a hold of it," referring to marijuana.

Couch said he supports "personal use," but doesn't believe the state is ready to take the step proposed by Berry.

"It's not going to be legalized unless the majority of Arkansans vote for it," he said. "That's just called a democracy, man."

Metro on 12/20/2015

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