A longtime medical-marijuana advocate said Tuesday that she'll make a push to get on the 2020 ballot a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Arkansas.
Melissa Fults, executive director of the Drug Policy Education Group, said she plans to file two proposed constitutional amendments with the secretary of state's office this afternoon, so that she may begin gathering signatures for the 2020 ballot.
While text of the proposals weren't available Tuesday, Fults described the amendments in an interview. The first, called the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment, would allow people over age 21 to possess up to 4 ounces of flower or grow up to six mature plants at home.
The second, called the Arkansas Marijuana Expungement Amendment, would allow people with convictions related to possession of paraphernalia or less than 16 ounces of marijuana to petition a court for a release from incarceration, a sentence reduction or the expungement of the conviction.
The proposal to legalize recreational cannabis drew quick rebukes from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and conservative groups.
Fults said it's time to put marijuana on par with alcohol, arguing it would benefit the economy and families that have been torn apart by the enforcement of marijuana laws.
"Other states have seen better, safer outcomes by removing the black market elements created by the illegal sale of cannabis," Fults said. "The truth is that cannabis is safer than alcohol while prohibition is ineffective and racially biased. It has done far more harm in our community than cannabis."
If legalized, Arkansas would be the 12th state in the U.S. where cannabis may be used recreationally. It would be the first Southern state to legalize the drug for recreational use.
In the past four years, 10 states have passed expungement measures similar to those included in Fults' second proposed amendment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Republican governor, speaking to about 250 people attending the Rotary Club of Little Rock luncheon, said he opposed legalizing marijuana for recreational use in part because of the detrimental effect he thought it would have on workforce production.
Hutchinson, who served as director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, encouraged people not to back Fults' proposal.
"I do not believe it is the right direction to go for Arkansas, so I would encourage you, don't sign that petition, don't support that initiative, let's make sure we get the medicinal marijuana right and let's hold the line and the distinction on that point," he said.
Voters approved Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution in 2016, which legalized marijuana use for 18 qualifying medical conditions. That program is only just now getting off the ground as five dispensaries have opened to qualified patients. The state ultimately will have 32 dispensaries and five cultivation centers.
Hutchinson opposed that ballot measure three years ago, but he has said that the state has worked hard to ensure medical marijuana is well regulated.
"I think it is important that people understand the distinction between medical marijuana and recreational use and we are having that adjustment here now in Arkansas with proper regulation of medical marijuana, and [legalizing recreational use of marijuana] would be a bad step for the state and take us in the wrong direction," he said.
Fults said the slowness with which the state implemented the 2016 amendment was one motivating factor in pushing to legalize cannabis outright.
Fults still must meet several requirements before her proposals are placed on the November 2020 ballot. First, she must gather the signatures of at least 89,151 registered voters for each proposal. Then, the state Board of Election Commissioners must certify the ballot measures.
This is the first election cycle under this new certification process after the General Assembly changed the law earlier this year. In previous cycles, before backers could begin gathering signatures, the state attorney general would review the ballot title to ensure it accurately and clearly conveyed the initiative.
Fults said the changes make it harder for people to gain access to the ballot, but she said she was confident after more than a dozen former attorneys and judges reviewed her proposal that it would meet the election commissioners' standards.
David Couch, the Little Rock attorney who drafted Amendment 98, said he'd be open to supporting Fults' proposal after reviewing the specifics. The two have clashed in the past over the details of medical-marijuana legalization. They worked together on a 2012 proposal but separately in 2016.
Fults, who also backed an effort in 2014 to legalize medical cannabis, said she believes that people should have the right to grow their own cannabis, likening it to growing heirloom tomatoes.
"I have a garden with tomatoes, and I bet it costs 15 times more to grow the tomatoes than it would if I bought them at the grocery store," Fults said. "I just enjoy doing it. I think you should have that right. You can legally make your own beer; you can legally make your own wine."
Couch excluded a "grow-your-own" provision from his 2016 medical-cannabis measure because he felt it would decrease the chance of passage. He said he had the same concerns about this proposal.
"Making your own moonshine is still illegal," he said.
Couch said he polled Arkansans broadly several months ago on whether cannabis should be legalized, and he said that about 55% of respondents supported legalization.
Under Fults' amendment, individuals could possess up to 4 ounces of flower or 2 ounces of concentrate. They also could have up to six mature plants and six seedlings.
It would allow a minimum of 120 dispensaries (30 in each congressional district) and one cultivation facility per every 250,000 people (12 growing facilities at Arkansas' current population of just more than 3 million).
The industry would be regulated by the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control, the same agency that now regulates medical-marijuana businesses, and Fults said she tried to make the license process similar to liquor permitting.
Any tax revenue from recreational marijuana would be used to fund its regulation, and the excess would go to pre-kindergarten and after-school programs as well as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Fults said.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, a conservative group that opposed the legalization of medical cannabis in 2016, said doing the same for the recreational use of the drug wouldn't do away with the black market, and enforcement costs would outweigh any new tax revenue.
"There's nothing safe about marijuana," Cox said in a statement, adding that legalization of the drug has been associated with increased vehicle crashes.
If certified, the marijuana amendments would join three legislatively referred ballot initiatives. One would shorten term limits of lawmakers; another would make it more difficult to amend the state constitution; and the third would permanently extend a half-percent sales tax for highway funding.
There's also a petition effort underway to get on the ballot a measure to repeal a law passed by the Arkansas General Assembly earlier this year expanding the scope of practice of optometrists.
Couch said in the next 30 to 60 days he'll submit paperwork and begin gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would change how state legislative districts are drawn. Currently, the governor, attorney general and secretary of state draw the lines, but under Couch's proposal, there would be an "independent" commission comprised of Arkansas residents.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Metro on 07/10/2019
Print Headline: Activist to push for vote on legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Arkansas