Friday, October 28, 2016

TOP STORY >> One marijuana issue removed

Leader staff writers

The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that supporters of Issue 7, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, failed to gather the necessary number of qualified petition signatures to be counted in the Nov. 8 general election.

Since the ballots are already prepared electronically and printed on paper and early voting has begun, Issue 7 will appear on the ballot but will not be counted.

Issue 6, a proposed constitutional amendment short titled the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, passed an earlier challenge in the Supreme Court and remains on the ballot.

The sponsor of the stricken measure submitted 117,547 signatures to the secretary of state’s office. An initiated petition must contain at least 67,887 signatures of registered voters from at least 15 counties.

The secretary of state validated 77,516 signatures, nearly 10,000 more than required, but attorney Kara Benca challenged 17,746 of them for various deficiencies, and after striking about 12,104 signatures, sponsors of the measures were left with approximately 65,412—approximately 2,465 fewer than needed to appear on the ballot.

The court granted Benca’s petition, thus Issue 7 failed to have enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

The court’s majority disallowed 7,580 from canvassers who did not have State Police background checks, or had them after beginning to collect signatures.

Another 2,087 were disqualified because canvassers used their business addresses instead of their residence address. Another 3,329 signatures were disallowed because the voter signing didn’t include the residential address.


Issue 7, the one disallowed by the Supreme Court, is perhaps best distinguished from the other because it included a “grow-your-own” provision for patients who lived too far from a dispensary.

“The sponsors of the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act will fight this decision, but the priority for Compassionate Arkansans is and has always been that patients have safe access to medical cannabis,” said Ryan Denham, deputy director of Issue 7.


Issue 6 or the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment is an initiated constitutional amendment.

A “no” vote opposes this amendment, while a “yes” vote creates a medical marijuana commission; supports the legalization of medical marijuana for 17 conditions; directs tax revenues to vocational and technical institutions and workforce training and the state’s General Revenue coffers.

Arkansans United for Medical Marijuana is a supporter of Issue 6 and David Couch, a sponsor, said, “If a physician believes it is appropriate for his patient then that’s his medical judgment. It should be respected.”

Statewide polls indicate that more than 80 percent of Arkansans support the use of medical marijuana when prescribed by a doctor.

Issue 7 or the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act would have allowed the General Assembly to determine the legality of medical marijuana by a two-thirds majority. It would have charged the state Health Department with oversight of medical marijuana.


Gov. Asa Hutchinson opposes Issue 6, along with Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, as do the state Health Department, the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Former U.S. Attorney and candidate for the U.S. Senate, Conner Eldridge on Thursday announced his support for Issue 6 on the Arkansas ballot, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.

Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley said he didn’t support either ballot issue. “Burning or inhaling anything causes more issues than not,” he said.

Bledsoe has taken the lead in opposition on behalf of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and has made himself available to churches and civic groups to speak against medical marijuana.


Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, past director of the state Health Department, has a different take.

“If a doctor feels that smoking a plant or chewing and eating a plant…is helpful for their patients with certain chronic diseases and it makes them feel better, why not?” she told Jonathan Kaufman of KUAR. “Why not let them be as comfortable as they could be for as long as they could be?”

On Tuesday, she told The Leader, “There are several medical conditions in which patients and doctors felt it was beneficial.” She cited patients with nausea, vomiting and with cancer and AIDS, who lost appetite or suffered seizures and those with certain types of neurological diseases as possible beneficiaries.

She said marijuana was safer than the opoids currently prescribed in many cases.


Eighty-four of 135 state lawmakers this week signed a letter opposing legalization of medical marijuana.

“Although I understand the need for compassionate care, I believe there is a better way than what is being offered to the voters of Arkansas with Issues 6 and 7, wrote House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia). “I encourage Arkansans to vote against these issues and work with legislators in the upcoming session to craft a responsible and compassionate solution.”

“Many of us agree that there are medical compounds that can possibly be derived from marijuana, but we need to allow the medical community and the FDA to make those determinations, not those looking to simply profit off of Arkansans,” said Senate President Pro-Tempre Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe). “Please vote no on Issues 6 and 7.”

Several other local lawmakers are among those who signed the letter, including state representatives Tim Lemons (R-Cabot), Donnie Copeland (R-North Little Rock), Karilyn Brown, (R-Sherwood) Doug House (R-North Little Rock), Joe Farrer (R-Austin) and senators Jane English, (R-North Little Rock) and Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot).

“There could be some benefit, but the risks and downside is too great,” Williams said.

State Rep. Camille Bennett (D-Lonoke) was not listed on the press release, but she said this week that she’s not convinced that either one of these measures should pass.


“If we’re going to have recreational use, let’s vote on that and not pretend it’s about medical marijuana,” Bennett said. “I’m concerned about the ability to grow your own.” She said the list of conditions for which it could be prescribed is “so exhaustive that it seems to be opening up to recreational use.”

Bennett is challenged by Republican Roger Lynch. “I feel that allowing either, the way they are worded, is wrong. If someone is really in need, they should be able to go through their local doctor and pharmacy,” he said.

Lynch said there is an extract legally available.


Rep. Bob Johnson (D- Jacksonville) says his son, 100 percent combat disabled with post traumatic stress disorder, could be helped by the drug. “I see the benefit. I’m probably going to support it because my experience with him,” he said.

“I don’t want to get into recreational use, and I’d like to be assured of patients getting a quality product.”

His son, whom he didn’t name for privacy reasons, is chairman of the Veterans Impact and the Central Arkansas Mental Health Council.

Farrer called marijuana “a precursor to harder drugs, that’s where they start.” He said he’s against both measures. “I don’t think Arkansas is ready for it.”

State Rep. David Hill-man, (D-Almyra) said he’s against a constitutional amendment that allows a few people to get rich off it. “The Legislature could rewrite a better more comprehensive act,” he said.


He said he had conferred with Dan Douglas (R- Bentonville), who has a draft proposal that the general assembly could consider if neither of the ballot proposals is approved.

Douglas’ draft legislation, called the Arkansas Compassionate Use Act of 2017, would allow medical marijuana use for 10 conditions: cancer; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS); epilepsy or seizures related to head trauma; multiple sclerosis; Crohn’s disease; mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle-cell disease.

In Thursday’s decision, Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson concurred with the majority in disqualifying Issue 7, but wrote that “As forewarned in (McDaniel v.) Spencer, this case illustrates that the general Assembly has made it unduly difficult for measures to be placed on the ballot.”

Goodson wrote that Act 1413 of 2013 infringes on citizens’ constitutional right to propose laws and amendments to the constitution, “The Act imposes arduous and burdensome requirements to the procedures for circulating and filing petitions for initiatives and referenda. By erecting such obstacles, the Act imposes a chilling effect on the rights of our citizens to initiate laws.”