Arkansas voters handed marijuana advocates a significant victory by passing a measure that would legalize the drug for medical use, but groups on both sides of the issue are now gearing up for fights over how to set up the program in the coming months.
The medical marijuana proposal narrowly approved by Arkansas voters is a cultural tipping point that shows the drug has gained acceptance even in a deeply conservative part of the country. The initiative won despite opposition of several powerful industry groups and the state’s Republican governor, who once served as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The move came four years after a similar measure failed at the ballot box.
Opponents vowed to keep pushing for legislation or regulations to limit the measure, even as the state faces a June 2017 deadline to start taking applications for dispensaries that will sell the drug.
“This fight is not over,” said Jerry Cox, the head of the socially conservative Arkansas Family Council. “The battle now shifts to the Arkansas Legislature.”
More than half the states have legalized medical marijuana. Florida and North Dakota also legalized medical marijuana on Tuesday, and voters in Montana were considering expanding access to the drug there. Meanwhile, California and Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana use, and three other states were considering doing so.
Supporters of the Arkansas measure said it would help patients suffering from a number of conditions that can’t otherwise be treated as effectively. Opponents, including the state Chamber of Commerce, the state Hospital Association and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said legalizing medical marijuana would be a drain on state resources and make it harder for employers to enforce drug-free workplaces.
The clock is ticking now for Hutchinson and state agencies to begin adopting rules and regulations for the program, including the registry cards that will be issued to eligible patients. Within the next month, Hutchinson and legislative leaders must appoint the members of the five-member commission that will consider dispensary applications. The head of the group behind the medical marijuana proposal urged lawmakers to not try to place too many limits on the program.
“Anybody who wants to try and gut this program, there’s going to be a horrible backlash,” said David Couch, head of Arkansans United for Medical Marijuana.
There’s not much room for lawmakers to scale back the medical pot program. The Legislature can make some changes with a two-thirds vote, but not anything that would affect provisions legalizing the drug or the number of dispensaries allowed. Hutchinson, who had warned agencies would need as much as $5.7 million in additional funding to enforce the medical pot measure, said he’d work with lawmakers on the new regulations.
“There are many uncertainties and this is new territory for us all,” Hutchinson said.
The measure, known as Issue 6, was the only valid medical marijuana proposal on the ballot. The state Supreme Court invalidated a competing measure after ruling that its backers didn’t follow state law regarding paid canvassers.
Issue 6 allows patients diagnosed with qualifying medical conditions to apply for a state-issued registration card that would let them buy marijuana from licensed dispensaries. The proposal lists 12 conditions that would qualify, including cancer, Crohn’s Disease and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with chronic or debilitating diseases that produces certain symptoms such as seizures or severe nausea. It would also allow the Department of Health to add other qualifying medical conditions.
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