The governor of Arkansas is rallying state law enforcement to “stand firm” in opposition to a marijuana legalization ballot initiative that may appear on the November ballot, depending of the outcome of a forthcoming legal challenge.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who previously headed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), spoke about the reform proposal at the Arkansas Municipal Police Association Convention on Wednesday. He said officers should prepare themselves for the cannabis policy debate and become an active part of the resistance to the legalization push.
Hutchinson’s comments made it seem like it was a given that the initiative from Responsible Growth Arkansas would appear on the state ballot. But while the secretary of state recently verified that activists had turned in enough signatures to qualify, an elections board voted against certifying the ballot title on Wednesday, with commissioners arguing that certain language was misleading.
Stephen Lancaster, a spokesperson for the campaign, told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that the campaign will be filing a challenge against the board’s decision in the state Supreme Court imminently, possibly as early as Thursday afternoon. Advocates are hopeful that the court will find the measure sufficient for certification.
But while the campaign is confident that support for the legalization measure is strong among voters, pointing out that they managed to collect and submit more than twice as many signatures as required for ballot qualification, Hutchinson is gearing up for a fight.
“I just glanced at the actual wording of the initiative, and the marijuana initiative, of course, is not medical marijuana, which we have, but is basically recreational use of marijuana,” the governor said at the police convention, as The Sentinel-Record reported. (The text of the proposed constitutional amendment makes clear that the intent of the reform is legalization for adult use, leaving little room for confusion.)
During his time as DEA administrator under President George W. Bush, Hutchinson made no such distinction between medical or recreational cannabis, overseeing raids against medical marijuana dispensaries in legal states that sparked protests and litigation.
The governor told police convention attendees on Wednesday that Responsible Growth Arkansas is “going to sell this as something that’s going to help law enforcement,” in part because the initiative calls for certain percentages of tax revenue from marijuana sales to support police departments and drug courts. “And so, once again, they’re selling a harmful drug to the citizens of Arkansas based upon promises that looks good.”
Those promises “might be a reality,” Hutchinson acknowledged, “but I think you’ve got to be prepared for this debate.” He told the officers to “stand firm” against the reform proposal.
Confusingly, the governor said that Alaska is an example of how cannabis policy changes backfire, referencing the fact that voters in 1990 approved a ballot measure overturning the state Supreme Court’s 1975 ruling that found the prohibition on personal possession and cultivation of marijuana to be unconstitutional.
He said that marijuana use increased following the Alaska court’s decision, and the subsequent vote showed that Alaskans “learned their lesson from that.” Missing from the governor’s recounting, however, is the fact that Alaska voters subsequently approved ballot initiatives to more broadly legalize medical cannabis in 1998 and commercial sales of recreational marijuana in 2014.
“Well, it’s a different mood in our country from the 70s and where we are now, but this is a significant debate that’s going to happen,” Hutchinson said, noting that polls show majority support for adult-use legalization in Arkansas. “It’s going to take a lot of education in order to change that climate and to be able to show voters that this would be, in fact, harmful.”
Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones, who is running to replace the term-limited Hutchinson in this November’s election, endorsed the legalization ballot measure this week.
“Regardless of what one thinks personally about the prospect of legal recreational marijuana, the revenue created by this ballot initiative would support general fund investments that can unlock the potential of Arkansas—in areas like education starting with preschool, infrastructure starting with broadband, and economic development starting with jobs—while supporting the state drug court program, UAMS and law enforcement,” he said.
Jones’s Republican opponent, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, does not appear to have spoken publicly about the initiative.
Here’s what the campaign’s marijuana legalization initiative would accomplish:
-Adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis from licensed retailers.
-Home cultivation would not be allowed.
-The measure would make a series of changes to the state’s existing medical cannabis program that was approved by voters in 2016, including a repeal of residency requirements to qualify as a patient in the state.
-The state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Division of the Department of Finance and Administration would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.
-Regulators would need to license existing medical cannabis dispensaries to also serve adult consumers, and also permit them to open another retail location for recreational marijuana sales only. A lottery system would award licenses for 40 additional adult-use retailers.
-There are no provisions to expunge or seal past criminal records for marijuana or to provide specific social equity licensing opportunities for people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.
-The state could impose up to a 10 percent supplemental tax on recreational cannabis sales, in addition to the existing state and local sales tax.
-Tax revenue would be divided up between law enforcement (15 percent), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (10 percent) and the state drug court program (five percent). The remaining revenue would go to the state general fund.
-People who own less than five percent of a marijuana businesses would no longer be subject to background checks.
-The legislature could not repeal of amend the state’s medical marijuana statutes without voter approval.
-Local governments could hold elections to prohibit adult-use retailers in their jurisdiction if voters approve the decision.
-Individuals could now own stake in more than 18 dispensaries.
-There would be advertising and packaging restrictions, including a requirement that marijuana products must be sold in tamper-resistant packages.
-Dispensaries would be able to cultivate and store up to 100 seedings, instead of 50 as prescribed under the current medical cannabis law.
A former Arkansas Democratic House minority leader, Eddie Armstrong, is behind the Responsible Growth Arkansas constitutional amendment, which he filed in January.
The group is just one of several campaigns that have pursued cannabis reform through the ballot this year, though backers of competing initiatives have since acknowledged they wouldn’t be able to collect enough signatures to qualify this year.
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Supporters of the separate campaigns, Arkansas True Grass and Arkansans for Marijuana Reform, have raised concerns with the provisions of the Responsible Growth Arkansas initiative, suggesting it would favor big businesses in the existing medical cannabis industry. Some have said they may look to 2024 to try again with their own approaches.
Lancaster previously told Marijuana Moment that the campaign hopes that won’t be necessary. His campaign feels that the constitutional amendment provides a sound infrastructure for reform that prioritizes regulations—and the plan is to push for further reforms in the legislature if voters approve legalization at the polls. That would include efforts to promote expungements, which isn’t addressed by the initiative.
Arkansas is also not the only state where voters may see drug policy reform measures on their November ballots:
Colorado voters will have the chance to decide on a historic ballot initiative this November to legalize psychedelics and create licensed psilocybin “healing centers” where people can use the substance for therapeutic purposes.
In May, South Dakota officials certified that activists turned in a sufficient number of signatures to qualify a marijuana legalization measure for the November ballot.
Maryland lawmakers passed legislation this year, which the governor allowed to go into effect without his signature, that will put the issue of cannabis legalization before voters this November.
North Dakota activists turned in what they believe to be enough signatures to place a marijuana legalization initiative before voters.
Oklahoma activists also said they’ve submitted what they believe to be more than enough signatures to qualify a marijuana legalization initiative for the November ballot.
Nebraska advocates recently submitted signatures for a pair of medical cannabis legalization initiatives. The campaign has faced several challenges along the way, including the loss of critical funding after a key donor passed away and a court battle of the state’s geographic requirements for ballot petitions.
A campaign to put cannabis legalization on the Missouri ballot may be in jeopardy, as early reporting shows that activists are coming up short on the required signatures in key districts.
An initiative to legalize marijuana will not appear on Ohio’s November ballot, the campaign behind the measure announced in May. But activists did reach a settlement with state officials in a legal challenge that will give them a chance to hit the ground running in 2023.
Michigan activists announced in June that they will no longer be pursuing a statewide psychedelics legalization ballot initiative for this year’s election and will instead focus on qualifying the measure to go before voters in 2024.
The campaign behind an effort to decriminalize drugs and expand treatment and recovery services in Washington State said in June that it has halted its push to qualify an initiative for November’s ballot.
While Wyoming activists said earlier this year that they made solid progress in collecting signatures for a pair of ballot initiatives to decriminalize marijuana possession and legalize medical cannabis, they didn’t get enough to make the 2022 ballot deadline and will be aiming for 2024 while simultaneously pushing the legislature to advance reform even sooner.
In March, California activists announced that they came up short on collecting enough signatures to qualify a measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for the state’s November ballot, though they aren’t giving up on a future election cycle bid.
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