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Radical Rant: Arkansas Learns a Sober Truth From the Blackjack Table

Russ Belville

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Covering the news and polls on two medical marijuana initiatives in Arkansas reminds me of how I learned to split pairs on the blackjack tables in Vegas.

According to the blackjack guide I’d glanced at, if the two cards you are dealt are the same rank (like, say, two eights), you can “split the pair.” The two cards become two separate one-card hands that each get another card dealt to them. They’re played as two separate hands, with two bets and twice the chance to win.

I sat at a table with one other player, a small old man with an exceptionally curved back. It was late (or early), way past 3 a.m., and I’m dealt two fives. It was my first dealt pair since learning about splitting and I was eager to try it. I moved the two fives apart and was getting the extra bet when the old man at the table opened fire.

“What the hell are you doing splitting fives?,” he bellowed.

I froze and looked at him. “Isn’t this how you do it?” I asked. “The two cards are the same, you put a bet on each…”

He interrupted, “Yeah, you can do it. But think about it. You got two fives. That’s ten. That’s a winner. Chances are your next card’s a seven or more, and you’ve got a hand of 17 to 21 stand on.

“But you split those fives, you got two hands of five drawing that seven or more. Then you got two shitty hands of 12 to 16 to draw to, and the next big card busts you.”

I pulled the other five back. He concluded. “Always split 8s and aces. That way, you’re turning one losing hand—16 or 12—into two winning ones—18s and 21s—if you draw a face card. But splitting fives is just turning one likely winner into two sure losers.”

Arkansas succeeded in getting medical marijuana on the ballot in 2012. But that just narrowly failed at the ballot with 49 percent for to 51 percent against. Just about half and half, near fifty-fifty… like a couple of 5s. A winner just waiting for the next face card to be dealt.

But since 2012, two of the leaders behind that initiative parted ways. David Couch pursued a stricter model with no home cannabis cultivation by patients and caregivers and a limited set of qualifying conditions. Melissa Fults pursued a model with some home grow for some rural patients and more than twice the qualifying conditions. Both proceeded gathering signatures on separate medical marijuana initiatives.

Arkansas isn’t the first state where disagreements led to separate initiatives. But usually, one initiative is well-funded and professionally staffed, the other one isn’t and fades away. An exception happened just this year in Maine, with two initiatives headed for the ballot, but the two campaigns found a way to compromise on one initiative.

Arkansas this year is the first state to “split the fives.” Fults and her Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act—the statutory limited home grow measure favored by patients—made the ballot first, but Couch would not cease campaigning for his Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment—the more business-friendly dispensary-only constitutional amendment.

As Couch’s initiative was poised to make the ballot, the old man at this table explaining the self-destructive act of splitting the fives was Marijuana Policy Project head Rob Kampia. He contacted Couch to explain how having two initiatives on the ballot makes winning harder, since two campaigns are splitting volunteers, donations, and resources, confusing the voters, and diluting base support.

Kampia explained how donors were ready to throw $1 million at Arkansas, but only if the initiative already on the ballot (Fults’) is the only one.

Couch rejected the deal, arguing that his amendment is more acceptable to conservative Arkansans, and MPP rescinded the funding offer. Couch’s no-grow amendment made the ballot as Issue 6, Fults’ limited-grow act is Issue 7, and neither of them have anything close to a million dollars on hand to advertise their campaigns.

This week, the first Arkansas poll on the two ballot issues has been released. On Issue 6, 49 percent are in favor and 43 percent are opposed. On Issue 7, 53 percent are opposed and just 39 percent are in favor.

Look at those numbers and you see that support for the more conservative Issue 6 is ten points greater than that for 7, seemingly confirming Couch’s reading of the electorate.

The data also confirm Kampia’s warnings about vote-splitting with two initiatives on the ballot for the same subject. The poll found that a full quarter of Issue 6 supporters were voting no on 7, but that only 8 percent of Issue 7 supporters were voting no on 6. Neither of the two initiatives have support above 50 percent, but if everybody who supported one supported the other, both would have slim majority support.

But if you’re a diehard supporter of one initiative over the other, game theory precludes you from voting for both. The figures above mean there are three “6ers” hating Issue 7 for every one “7er” hating Issue 6. As a 7er, you’re ten points behind 6 in large part because your side is supporting them more than they support you.

So some of the 7ers will pull their support from 6 the next time pollsters ask to close the gap. That drives down the Issue 6 support but does nothing to increase the Issue 7 support. The 6ers are winning; why would they help 7 catch up? If 7er defections bring 6 down close to 7, Issue 6 will convince more 6ers to drop Issue 7.

Morally, I must always support a medical law, even CBD-only, so I—and people like me—would vote for both 6 and 7 and encourage others to do the same. But some medical marijuana supporters will vote yes on only the one initiative they feel best serves patients. As a group we’ll end up driving down chances either passes, while virtually all our prohibition-profiteer opponents will vote NO on both 6 and 7.

It’s sad to see the Arkansas medical marijuana movement splitting the fives like this, but I hold out hope that there are some low cards up next so we win at least one of these bets. Too many patients can’t wait for the next hand to be dealt.

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