Another proposal seeks legal recreational use of marijuana in Arkansas

FILE - In this June 17, 2015, file photo, marijuana plants grow at LifeLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
FILE - In this June 17, 2015, file photo, marijuana plants grow at LifeLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

A second 2020 ballot initiative seeking to legalize marijuana for recreational use was filed with the Arkansas secretary of state this week.

Arkansas True Grass -- a cannabis advocacy group -- submitted the proposed constitutional amendment, "The Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2020," which would legalize the use of the drug and expunge any previous criminal convictions under the Arkansas Controlled Substances Act that were solely related to marijuana.

Another advocacy group -- the Drug Policy Education Group, whose executive director is Melissa Fults -- already has filed a pair of proposed amendments with nearly identical goals.

Both groups' proposals seek to legalize marijuana and expunge past criminal offenses; the difference, though, lies in the regulatory framework established by each. The Drug Policy Education Group split legalized recreational use of marijuana and conviction expungement in separate proposals.

William Barger, a retired Arkansas National Guard member from Little Rock, submitted the latest proposed amendment on behalf of Arkansas True Grass. He said that both groups' efforts have been coming together for some time. He said marijuana legalization would have positive, widespread effects.

"A lot of people just focus on the personal rights, and I believe that it should be a personal right," Barger said in an interview Wednesday. "But there's more to it than that. About 50% of drug cartels and gangs' revenue stream is from marijuana. Legalizing it could cut down gang violence. Plus, Arkansas farmers have been hit hard the last few years. This could be another cash crop, give agriculture and small communities a chance to rise back up."

If legalized, Arkansas would be the 12th state in the U.S. -- and the first Southern state -- where cannabis may legally be used recreationally.

In the past four years, 10 states have passed expungement measures similar to those included in the proposals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has already said he opposes legalizing cannabis beyond medical purposes, and some conservative groups have announced opposition to the measures.

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.

Barger's and Fults' groups both still have several hurdles before their proposals are certified to appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.

Both groups 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 and popular name to ensure it accurately and clearly conveyed the initiative.

The Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2020, filed by Arkansas True Grass, proposed a more lax regulatory environment than that provided in the Drug Policy Education Group's Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment.

The Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment would legalize cannabis "as an intoxicant for the purpose of adult enjoyment or pleasure" for those older than 21. It would give regulatory authority to the Arkansas Agriculture Department and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, which regulates medical marijuana.

It would create Class A and B marijuana licenses, which would carry annual fees of $250 and $500. Class A license holders would be permitted to cultivate cannabis and sell plants and seeds. Class B license holders would be allowed to sell plants or usable marijuana products.

Also under the proposal, individuals could grow up to 12 of their own marijuana plants and purchase up to 4 ounces of "smokable or vaporizable" marijuana each day. Under the current Medical Marijuana Amendment, patients may purchase only 2.5 ounces of medical cannabis every 14 days. They also are not allowed to grow their own marijuana.

Marijuana, under the Arkansas True Grass proposal, would be subject to normal state sales and use taxes in addition to an 8% excise tax and 5% local sales tax.

It would require the expungement of marijuana-related criminal offenses, including possession; possession with intent to manufacture and deliver; manufacturing, distributing and delivering; distributing or delivering in proximity of certain facilities; and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

It also would require the state to free any prisoners or parolees serving sentences related to those marijuana offenses.

"Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol," Barger said.

Fults said she thought Arkansas True Grass' amendment went too far for Arkansas voters. Under her group's proposal, the number of marijuana growing and selling licenses would be capped based on population and distributed through a lottery system, similar to the method used for liquor permits.

Under the Drug Policy Education Group's proposal, individuals also would be allowed to grow only six mature plants and six seedlings at one time, and it would allow local governments, through an election, to prohibit the retail sale of marijuana.

The group filed a separate amendment to deal with the expungement of criminal offenses to avoid legal challenges, Fults said.

Fults said she didn't think the competing amendment would have any effect on her group's efforts. She also said she didn't wish any ill will toward Arkansas True Grass.

"I think ours is more appealing to Arkansans and will pass with no problems," she said.

Metro on 07/25/2019

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