Arkansas recreational marijuana supporters push for legalization proposals on 2022 ballots

Backer wants it on ’22 ballot

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif.
FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif.

A proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to legalize recreational marijuana and allow for a number of cannabis businesses proportional to the state's population was filed with the secretary of state's office Thursday morning.

The Arkansas Adult Use and Expungement Marijuana Amendment will be one of at least three adult-use cannabis proposals vying for the 2022 ballot.

The measure would authorize marijuana possession for adults and allow for at least one dispensary license per 15,000 Arkansas residents. It would limit the number of cultivation facility licenses to one per 300,000 residents.

The amendment would also allow anyone with certain felony or misdemeanor convictions related to marijuana possession to petition the courts for relief from the conviction.

Melissa Fults, a board member of the Arkansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the sponsor of a 2016 medical cannabis measure that was tossed off the ballot, filed the latest proposed amendment.

"I think it's fair for the consumer, I think it's fair for the industry, and I think it's fair for the state," she said.

Fults said she did not initially plan to file an amendment but saw problems with the other two proposals.

The proposed Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2022, sponsored by the group Arkansas True Grass, was filed in May 2020 and would legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older without putting a cap on the number of cannabis businesses.

A third effort, Responsible Growth Arkansas, filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission last month but has not yet filed a proposed amendment with the secretary of state's office.

[DOCUMENT: Read the petition »]

Fults said Arkansas True Grass' proposal would be "like the Wild West" and not gain the support of voters. She said the other, based on what she had heard, would limit the industry to a smaller number of businesses and make it more exclusive.

"If it can't grow with the state, it'll be stifled and never go anywhere," she said. "I think that's the only fair way to do it."

She said that while the Arkansas NORML chapter has not endorsed the measure -- it requires approval from the national organization -- the majority of the board members support it.

To qualify to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, a group must collect at least 89,151 signatures of registered voters, or 10% of the votes cast for governor in the 2018 general election.

A new state law, Act 951 of 2021, requires canvassers collecting signatures for ballot initiatives to be Arkansas residents and prohibits paying canvassers on a per-signature basis.

Fults said she believes the law is unconstitutional, but if it isn't overturned, supporters of the amendment would figure out a way to gather signatures. She noted that previous efforts have gotten on the ballot with very few paid canvassers.

"If somebody wants to bring a lawsuit against it, I will be right there with them," she said.

Jesse Raphael, a spokesman for Arkansas True Grass, said he was disappointed because many provisions of Fults' amendment are similar to theirs, but multiple measures could confuse voters or dilute the voter pool.

He said their amendment is similar to recreational measures in Oklahoma and Colorado in allowing an unlimited number of businesses, and that he disagreed with provisions in Fults' amendment regarding inspection of home grows and having to ask the court for expungement or release for marijuana-related offenses.

The Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2022 would automatically release from incarceration or expunge the records of people whose only conviction was for a marijuana-related offense.

"We think ours is better for the state of Arkansas," Raphael said. "If people want everything on the ballot, that's fine, but we're going to keep campaigning for our petition regardless of how many other petitions present themselves."

Eddie Armstrong, a former Arkansas House Democratic leader from North Little Rock, is the chairman of Responsible Growth Arkansas. He is a founder of Cannabis Capital Corp., a Chicago-based consulting group for the marijuana industry, and managing director at Maple and Orange LLC, an Arkansas-based lobbying and consulting firm.

Armstrong said Thursday that he could not give more details about the group's forthcoming amendment because of a legal review but that it would be filed in the next few weeks.

He said the effort would "focus on a responsible approach and a well-reasoned approach" and that there was no intent to be exclusive.

He said he didn't take Fults' filing an amendment as a slight because it demonstrates the state has a growing consensus of support for legalizing adult-use cannabis in a "responsible and regulated way."

"That's something we can coalesce around," he said.

But legalizing recreational marijuana isn't without opponents in Arkansas. Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber didn't have a stance on the proposals but would likely oppose recreational marijuana.

Jerry Cox, director of the Family Council Action Committee, said the group opposes all marijuana amendments because of "a growing body of scientific evidence" showing that marijuana can be harmful and addictive to the user. The committee, which is the political arm of the conservative Arkansas Family Council, plans to form a ballot question committee to raise funds to oppose recreational marijuana measures, Cox said.

Arkansas voters approved Amendment 98, the constitutional change setting up the state's medical marijuana program, in 2016.