Arkansas Board of Corrections expresses opposition to proposed recreational marijuana amendment

Candidates vary on ballot issue

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The Arkansas Board of Corrections declared its opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana on Friday, a day after the state Supreme Court ruled votes will be counted on the proposed ballot measure in the Nov. 8 general election.

The Corrections Board unanimously approved a motion by Chairman Benny Magness to state that the board is against changing the Arkansas Constitution to legalize recreational marijuana.

"It's a mistake to put into the constitution, but the first mistake is doing it at all," Magness said near the end of the board's monthly meeting.

Magness said he also wants to address "the myth" that state prisons were filled with low-level marijuana violations.

"I would assume it's not over 10 of the 14,000 inmates," he said. "And out of those 10 a majority are probably because of revocation or because of large quantities."

Board member John Felts said most of the inmates who are in the prison system say they were under the influence of drugs when they committed their crime.

"Some obviously are not on marijuana, but methamphetamine or cocaine, but when we start legalizing what I believe is an entry type drug that leads to other drugs and addictions, then I just feel like it's essential for the board to be public about it," he said. "This is a horrible mistake. I know those who have opposite opinions about it, but every person I talked to who have had to deal meth or cocaine, many of them say they hated the day they picked up their first marijuana cigarette."

A spokesman for the Responsible Growth Arkansas ballot committee backing the proposed constitutional amendment could not be reached for comment to respond to the Arkansas Board of Corrections' action and concerns Friday afternoon.

The Responsible Growth Arkansas' proposed constitutional amendment would limit the sale of cannabis to people 21 or older and prohibit advertising and packaging designed to appeal to children.

It would provide regulatory oversight by limiting the number of licensed businesses and would not allow homegrown cannabis. It would limit the number of cannabis licenses to 20 cultivators and 120 dispensaries statewide, which includes existing medical marijuana licenses.

The proposed amendment will be Issue 4 on the general election ballot.

In 2016, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 98, the constitutional change that legalized cannabis for medical use. The first dispensaries in the state opened in 2019.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a decision by the state Board of Election Commissioners to pave the way for the Responsible Growth Arkansas' proposed constitutional amendment to be included on the ballot for the general election.

The state Supreme Court granted a petition made by Responsible Growth Arkansas to vacate the determination of the state Board of Election Commissioners and the secretary of state not to certify the ballot for a proposed constitutional amendment authorizing the adult possession and use of cannabis.

"Petitioners argue that the ballot title is sufficient under this court's precedent and that Arkansas Code Annotated section 7-9-111's ballot-title certification process is unconstitutional. We grant the petition," Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne wrote in the decision. "... Accordingly, we grant the petition and order the Secretary of State to certify the proposed amendment for inclusion on the November 8, 2022 general election ballot. We order the mandate to issue within five days of this opinion unless a petition for rehearing is filed."

The decision comes less than a week after John Thurston of East End, secretary of state and chairman of the state Board of Election Commissioners, said in a declaration to the Arkansas Supreme Court that the proposed constitutional amendment was insufficient because the state Board of Election Commissioners did not certify the ballot title and popular name.

Wynne wrote the board had no authority to decline to certify the ballot title to the secretary of state, and its action is without legal effect. He wrote that the court concluded petitioners were not required to summarize the existing law, that a ballot title does not need to include every possible consequence or impact of a proposed measure, and it does not need to address or anticipate every possible legal issue.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday that the state Supreme Court's decision protects as a constitutional priority the right of citizens to decide ballot initiatives.

"The Court seemed to acknowledge that the ballot title was somewhat misleading but trusts the voters to make an informed decision," the Republican governor said in a written statement.

"This issue needs to be vigorously debated between now and the election so the voters will understand the unprecedented impact that this initiative will have on our state. As I have stated I will vote No on this amendment," Hutchinson said.

Judd Deere, a spokesman for Republican gubernatorial nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Little Rock, had no comment Friday afternoon when asked whether she would vote for or against the proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana.

Several weeks ago, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Jones of Little Rock and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. of Pine Bluff said they support the proposed ballot measure.

Jones said Friday that "this initiative is a good first step toward Arkansas embracing a pragmatic cannabis policy.

"If approved by the majority of Arkansans, this new policy will encourage economic growth of a new business market, deliver funding to support priorities like education and community safety, equip our hard-working law enforcement to keep us safe by focusing on serious crimes, and protect consumers," he said in a written statement.

Harrington said Friday that "I will be voting in favor of the marijuana amendment.

"Of the two marijuana amendments, I supported True Grass because I believe it is more in line with the principles of Liberty," he said in a written statement. "I do have issues with the Responsible Growth amendment, but I believe it is a step in the right direction."

Asked how Republican lieutenant governor nominee Leslie Rutledge of Maumelle plans to vote on the proposed constitutional amendment, Rutledge's campaign manager Sandy Hall said Friday in a written statement that "The Attorney General is focused on her campaign for Lt. Governor and has no plans to be involved on this issue.

"The Attorney General has no plans to campaign for or against any of the ballot measures," Hall said.

Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Kelly Krout of Lowell said Friday that she plans to vote for the proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana.

"Adults should be free to make their own decisions about marijuana use, such is the case with alcohol and tobacco," she said.

Libertarian lieutenant governor candidate Frank Gilbert of Little Rock said Friday that he plans to vote for the proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana "as a first step."

"I wish it were more of a free market," and the proposed constitutional amendment would allow "a bunch of rich people" to make more money, he said.

Republican attorney general nominee Tim Griffin said Friday in a written statement that "I oppose recreational marijuana because Arkansas can't attract the high-quality, good-paying jobs we need -- especially if they require a drug test -- if a significant percentage of our workforce is high on pot."

Griffin, of Little Rock, currently serves as the state's lieutenant governor.

Democratic attorney general nominee Jesse Gibson of Little Rock said Friday he plans to vote for the proposed constitutional amendment.

Recreational marijuana would be taxed and regulated under the proposed ballot measure and "I think it will help the state's coffers, which I think is always a good thing," he said. In addition, he said "it will free up law enforcement to focus on violent crimes to keep our neighborhoods safe."

A Talk Business-Hendrix College poll of 835 likely Arkansas voters conducted Sept. 12 showed 58.5% of the respondents were in support of the proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana, and 29% were against the proposed ballot measure with 12.5% undecided. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

"We see support for the measure across a variety of demographics suggesting that opponents will have a tough time peeling off votes to defeat the proposal," Talk Business & Politics Editor In chief Roby Brock said Sept. 15.