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State justices approve title of medical marijuana measure

by Brian Fanney | September 23, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.
Information about Medical marijuana laws

The words used to summarize a medical marijuana proposal on ballots received unanimous approval from the Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday, but the proposed initiated act still faces a second challenge before the state's highest court.

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
A comparison of the two Medical Marijuana proposals for Arkansas

The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit filed by a coalition of opponents who alleged problems with the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act's ballot title. The justices ruled that the title, which will be printed on Nov. 8 ballots, is legally sufficient.

The initiated act's "ballot title is an impartial summary of the proposed measure that will give voters a fair understanding of the issues presented and of the scope and significance of the proposed changes in the law," wrote Justice Josephine Hart in the Supreme Court opinion.

It was the court's first action on this year's ballot proposals; three amendments also await decisions by the justices. One of those amendments is a competing marijuana proposal whose backer hired someone to look for signature errors in the initiated act's petitions; the findings are the basis of the second suit against the act.

[INTERACTIVE MAP: Click here for a look at how laws related to marijuana have evolved over the past two decades.]

Melissa Fults, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said she was not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision on the first lawsuit. The group backs the proposed initiated act and gathered the signatures to get it on the ballot.

"We are pleased with today's ruling from the Supreme Court on the challenge to Issue 7's ballot title and are moving forward with the hopes of the same outcome for the lawsuit challenging our signatures," she said in a statement.

Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana had argued that the ballot title was misleading to voters. The group said in its complaint that the ballot title falsely stated that the act limits the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The group also said the title contained partisan language and incompletely described the effect on employers, landlords, churches and schools.

The group had asked the Supreme Court to prevent votes from being counted, since it is too late to stop ballots from being printed with proposals.

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

"We respect the court's decision, but it doesn't change our message," said Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, who is the spokesman for Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana. "We're still focused on getting the word out to explain to Arkansas citizens why marijuana is not medicine and it's not safe."

Thursday's decision ends the challenge to the ballot title, but the pending second lawsuit challenges signatures gathered for petitions for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act.

That lawsuit, filed by Little Rock lawyer Kara Benca, also asks the Supreme Court to prevent Secretary of State Mark Martin from counting votes cast on the proposal.

Benca's suit questions about 15,000 signatures gathered by Arkansans For Compassionate Care, which would leave the act's sponsor without enough valid signatures.

The Supreme Court appointed a special master to listen to arguments for that case. A report is due to the court by Wednesday.

David Couch, a Little Rock lawyer who is backing the competing Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, has said he shared information with Benca relevant to the lawsuit.

During questioning earlier this week, Heidi Gay, a National Ballot Access owner, said she was owed about $30,000 by supporters of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment for the work she did finding errors in the signature pages of petitions for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. National Ballot Access is a Georgia company that is hired to gather signatures for petitions.

The errors Gay found are being used for the lawsuit against the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act.

"I did retain Heidi to review the petitions and the accompanying registration information," Couch said. "I don't dispute that."

Fults said she believes the secretary of state's office correctly certified the signatures for the act, but her group is "deeply concerned" about the amount paid to Gay "to find errors in our signatures."

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment faces its own lawsuit from Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana, which contains some of the same arguments in the rejected suit against the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act.

"I think that [Thursday's ruling] means, with respect to ballot titles, that the Supreme Court is going to give deference," Couch said. "Unless there's something really egregious that's not included or left out, then they're going to let the people vote on these issues."

The Arkansas Supreme Court has been reluctant to knock proposals off the ballot in recent years.

In 2014, the Supreme Court rejected efforts to block two measures, one that would increase the minimum wage and another that would legalize alcohol sales throughout the state.

The 2012 medical-marijuana ballot measure fought off a ballot title challenge from a coalition that included Family Council President Jerry Cox and Faith and Ethics Council Executive Director Larry Page.

The coalition argued that the 2012 ballot title, at 384 words, was too long and voters would not have adequate time in the voting booth to review it. The coalition also argued that the title didn't give voters enough detail about what the law would do.

"The title informs the voters in an intelligible, honest and impartial manner," Justice Karen Baker wrote in the opinion four years ago. "The ballot title is not unduly long, nor is it complex or misleading."

Couch worked with Arkansans for Compassionate Care -- which backs the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act -- on the proposed 2012 medical-marijuana measure, which received 49 percent of the popular vote.

He said he split from the group because a "grow-your-own" provision was one reason the 2012 effort failed.

Both current proposals would allow the drug to be used to treat patients under the direction of a doctor, but they differ in their approaches. For example, the act would allow patients who meet certain standards to grow their own marijuana. Fults said the provision ensures affordability and access for patients.

Couch's amendment does not contain a grow-your-own provision.

Twenty-five states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico either allow medical-marijuana use or are in the process of doing so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Couch and Fults both have said that support for allowing marijuana to be used as medicine has increased in the state, but they face more organized opposition this year from Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana and Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said earlier this month that all medicine should be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before patients use it.

Seven ballot issues have been approved for the Nov. 8 ballot. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment is Issue 6. The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act is Issue 7.

A Section on 09/23/2016

Print Headline: State justices approve title of 'pot' measure


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