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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: How dare the people rule!

by John Brummett | August 7, 2022 at 1:41 a.m.

"Regnat populus" my patoot.

Never has a state been as afraid as Arkansas of its own motto, which means "the people rule," which they don't and which the powers-that-be fear and resist.

Ever since the people approved ballot issues by direct democracy to raise the minimum wage, spread casino wagering and permit sick people to get marijuana for medical reasons with a doctor's note, the overwhelmingly Republican bosses of Arkansas have been aghast.

They're wondering what's up with these people who don't have a lick of sense except when voting for Donald Trump and their local legislator.

In these parts, laws are to be made only by people running around in the state Capitol on per diem--or on per diem but not actually in the Capitol because they felt bad and were only well enough to go instead to a Republican Party function down the way and then to lunch with a colleague.

So we have this proposed ballot issue for November for the recreational use of marijuana.

The production and sale largely would be run through the insiders already in the medical marijuana business, and with the Alcoholic Beverage Control regulating it, and with steep taxes generating receipts going to the police and other things.

The initiative passed its first hurdle by getting nearly 200,000 signatures, more than twice the number required.

In recent sessions, however, our Legislature has made it harder to get or keep such proposals on the ballot, and it wasn't easy before with the Arkansas Supreme Court flexing its muscle by throwing off bad and good ones.

You now need more signatures in less time. The qualifications and timeline for a "cure period" if you come up short have been tightened.

And, in a non sequitur for the ages, the state Board of Election Commissioners, which consists of Republican officeholder appointees except for one Democrat, and which oversees elections, got installed as the first review body for the appropriateness of ballot titles.

These are not judges. There is no reason to think they know any more about ballot titles than you do, or as much.

But they were just sick the other day that the recreational marijuana ballot title didn't say that the THC maximum-content allowance for marijuana would be eliminated in favor of regulations to be set by the ABC on things like edible candies that might get in the hands of children, and the child-proof packaging to be required.

That provision is in the body of the amendment. It's there for opponents to exploit and rail against to try to dissuade voters.

You can't put everything in an amendment in the ballot title, because then it would be not the title, but the amendment.

Yet the safest thing in the view of the newly empowered election commission simply was to decline to certify the proposal for the ballot on the grounds that people don't know what they're doing.

I'm fairly sure that the ABC, trained in regulating booze, knows how to design and enforce regulations against marijuana shops that would put easy-to-unwrap THC-potent gummy bears in bins by the door for kids to shoplift. And, if the ABC didn't, then I'm fairly sure the parents out there would raise serious hell.

The election commissioners also were alarmed that background checks weren't required for marijuana-business licenses holding less than a 5 percent interest. They wondered: What if 25 criminals take 4 percent interest apiece? Would we be powerless to stop them?

The answers are that no such conglomerate would dare come forward and wouldn't be granted a license if it did.

The issue will now go to the state Supreme Court, which has that aforementioned history of not approving of people voting directly on issues.

Meantime, be advised that the Legislature gets to refer ballot proposals to you. One of those in November says a ballot issue henceforth wouldn't pass on a simple majority vote of the people, but only if 60 percent of the people were goofy.

Also be advised that another legislative referral proposes that legislators may call themselves into special session. For now, only the governor may call a special session then restrict the agenda to items of his choosing except by a legislative vote of two-thirds to suspend the rules.

So, the next time we have a pandemic and the governor comes out to a news conference and cites his or her emergency powers in declaring a mask mandate because people are dying and the hospitals are overrun, the Legislature could call itself to special session. It could pass a bill permitting all willing Arkansans to breathe hard on each other from close range as long as that was a virus, not THC, on their breath.

Surely you understand that a person's freedom is the important thing except when it comes to getting to vote on a proposal you signed a petition to get to vote on.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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