Arkansas secretary of state declares proposed marijuana ballot measure insufficient

Despite setback, fight to continue

This Sept. 30, 2016, file photo shows a marijuana bud before harvesting at a rural area near Corvallis, Ore. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

The Arkansas secretary of state has declared a proposed ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana as insufficient for inclusion on the November general election ballot, but court proceedings are expected to continue.

John Thurston, secretary of state, said in the declaration to the Arkansas Supreme Court that the proposed constitutional amendment is insufficient because the State Board of Election Commissioners did not certify the ballot title and popular name.

The declaration was expected to be filed Tuesday with the state Supreme Court, according to Kevin Niehaus, spokesman for the secretary of state's office. Niehaus said the office believes the declaration is a formality and that he doesn't believe the declaration will be the final decision regarding the proposed ballot measure.

The state Supreme Court on Monday handed down a per curiam opinion stating the court had issued a writ of mandamus to the secretary of state's office to decide the sufficiency of the proposed initiative petition. The court ordered the office to file proof of its decision by 4 p.m. today.

Steve Lancaster, counsel for Responsible Growth Arkansas, described the order as a "procedural step" to get clarification from the secretary of state and said he remains confident the court will rule to keep the proposed recreational marijuana amendment on the ballot.

"We see this as the court wanting to check the box that the secretary of state either says the petition is sufficient or insufficient," Lancaster said.

The decision is part of a weekslong court battle in which two ballot question committees opposed to the recreational marijuana proposal were allowed to intervene in the case that will determine whether the amendment remains on the ballot.

Safe and Secure Communities filed its motion Aug. 24, stating that the committee was created to "educate the public about the consequences of legalizing marijuana for personal use, and advocate for the defeat of an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution allowing the regulated sale of adult-use cannabis in the state."

The respondent-intervenor for the committee is Michael McCauley, who is listed as treasurer of the organization. The largest donation received by the group was $250,000 from Ronald Cameron, CEO of Mountaire Corp.

A week earlier the court granted a request by the Save Arkansas from Epidemic committee that seeks to protect the interests and rights of Arkansans who oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana.

That request was filed by Fairfield Bay Police Chief David Burnett, in his capacity as chairman of the committee, and Little Rock lawyer AJ Kelly.

Responsible Growth Arkansas officials filed a response last month to the initial motion to intervene, saying it came too late in the expedited proceeding without explanation, poses prejudice to petitioners by interjecting new issues when time is running short, and is unnecessary because respondents adequately represent intervenors' interests.

Earlier in August, the state Supreme Court granted a petition to allow the proposed constitutional amendment back on the November ballot until the state Supreme Court decides how to proceed with the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners' decision to not approve the proposed amendment's ballot title.

The court ordered the secretary of state to conditionally certify Responsible Growth Arkansas' proposed initiated amendment pending its decision.

Officials for Responsible Growth Arkansas had filed a petition seeking a preliminary injunction because the Aug. 25 deadline for certification of initiated measures was pressing. It also asked the court to order Thurston to conditionally certify the petitioners' proposed amendment pending the court's decision.

The proposed amendment would issue adult-use cannabis cultivation and dispensary licenses to businesses that already hold licenses under the state's medical marijuana program, followed by an additional 40 licenses chosen through a lottery.

Board of Election Commissioners member Bilenda Harris-Ritter, the Republican Party's designee, made the motion to deny the ballot title and popular name for the amendment partly because it would repeal the current THC limits without explaining if a new limit would be set. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Lancaster argued that the role of the Board of Election Commissioners is not to judge the amendment itself but to see if the ballot title has language that is misleading or omits information that could change voters' minds.

The initiative limits the sale of cannabis to people 21 or older and prohibits advertising and packaging designed to appeal to children. It provides regulatory oversight by limiting the number of licensed businesses, and does not allow for homegrown cannabis.

It also limits the number of cannabis licenses to 20 cultivators and 120 dispensaries statewide, which includes existing medical marijuana licenses.