Second marijuana proposal OK'd for Arkansas ballot

Competition, confusion worry campaigner of first marijuana measure

Secretary of State Mark Martin's office on Wednesday certified a second medical-marijuana proposal for the Nov. 8 ballot.

The development means that, barring successful court challenges, supporters of both the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act must now compete for votes while also facing opposition from groups such as Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana, the state attorney general and the governor.

"It's going to be a tough battle, but it's just the right thing to do," said David Couch, a Little Rock-based lawyer who backs the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.

The secretary of state's office certified the amendment proposal on Wednesday on the basis of the number of valid signatures Couch turned over to the office. He needed at least 84,859 valid signatures. He submitted 97,284 valid signatures, according to the office.

Couch worked with Arkansans for Compassionate Care -- which backs the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act -- on a proposed 2012 medical-marijuana measure that fell just short of approval in that year's general election.

Since then, more states have voted to legalize medical marijuana and Couch said he's learned from past efforts. But while support increased, the opposition also evolved, he said.

"In 2012, we snuck up on everybody. Nobody thought we had a chance. There was no well-organized opposition," Couch said. "Well, we're not sneaking up on anybody this time."

Melissa Fults, campaign manager for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group behind the initiated act, has repeatedly said that if both the act and the constitutional amendment end up on ballots, both are doomed. She called on Couch to drop the amendment.

On Wednesday, she said her organization has overcome every obstacle so far, but the amendment's certification makes her work more difficult.

"We have to believe that running a positive campaign and getting our volunteers out will get the message out enough that people will know the difference or will vote for both," she said. "It's going to be confusing. We'll be right next to each other on the ballot."

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment will be Issue 6. The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act will be Issue 7.

A lawsuit was filed Aug. 23 by Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana to prevent the state from counting votes for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. The complaint, filed with the Arkansas Supreme Court, alleges problems with the ballot title. The proposed act was certified for the ballot by Martin's office in July.

Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, who is serving as spokesman for the group, said Wednesday he's not yet sure whether the group will file suit against the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.

"We're going to leave the door open for now and let the lawyers involved review it," he said.

Couch said his ballot title was written by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and went through several drafts with her office.

The competing Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act's ballot title was approved by former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat.

"Are they going to criticize a Republican attorney general's ballot title? Maybe not," Couch said.

For Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana's campaign, Bledsoe said the group plans to tell voters about specific provisions in both the act and the amendment.

Members of Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana include the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation, the Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities, the Family Council Action Committee, the Arkansas Committee for Ethics Policy and psychiatrist Melanie Conway.

"When you walk into a room of people and ask how many are in favor of medical marijuana, eight of 10 people raise their hand," Bledsoe said. "But when you talk about the specifics -- what this will do to landlords, and to employers, and the fact that taxpayers will be paying for this -- that's when the numbers start falling off."

The group's strategy will be to inform voters of those specifics, he said.

For his campaign, Couch said he will emphasize that "the amendment was written by Arkansans with Arkansans in mind and not by people from out of state."

Fults said her group will focus on "what our initiative says, which is protecting patients as well as the community to make sure no patients are left behind."

"If we spend all of our time fighting him, we're not spending time fighting for us," she said of Couch.

Under the proposed Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, a patient with a "Hardship Cultivation Certificate" would be allowed to grow up to 10 cannabis plants -- five mature plants and five seedlings -- in an enclosed, locked facility. A caregiver would be allowed to cultivate the plants.

The hardship 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. Nonprofit centers would serve as dispensaries.

Fults said the grow-your-own provision is essential to ensure affordability, but Couch said it hurt the efforts to legalize medical marijuana in 2012.

Another difference between Couch's amendment and Fults' initiated act is the number and type of marijuana facilities allowed.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment would provide for at least 20 but not more than 40 dispensary licenses and at least four but not more than eight cultivation facility licenses. No owner, board member or officer would be able to own more than one dispensary or cultivation facility under the proposed amendment.

The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act would cap the number of cannabis-care centers, which must be nonprofits, at one-twentieth the number of pharmacies that have obtained a pharmacy permit from the state Board of Pharmacy to operate within the state. There are 794 in-state retail pharmacies, according to the board, so there would be about a 40-center limit.

If more nonprofit centers are "necessary to provide convenient access to Usable Cannabis by Qualifying Patients in all parts of the state," the state Department of Health may issue more registration certificates under the proposed act.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment would allow for intractable pain to be treated with marijuana. It is defined as "pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment, or surgical measures for more than six (6) months," according to the amendment text. About 20 other qualifying conditions are also named in the text.

The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act would allow the use of marijuana for those with intractable pain, which is "pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment, or surgical measures for more than three (3) months," according to the act. About 55 other qualifying conditions are also named in the text.

A Section on 09/01/2016