A medical marijuana initiative in Arkansas cleared two recent legal hurdles but still faces a tough race on Election Day.
And this time, legalization advocates have no one to blame but themselves: An internecine fight has made for bad blood between two pro-reform camps.
The result: Two competing measures on the ballot, confusing and seemingly splitting support in a state where the prohibition laws are among the harshest in the country.
“We have been fighting for five years to get this passed,” Melissa Fults, the campaign director with Arkansans for Compassionate Care, told HIGH TIMES. Her organization is sponsoring the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, an initiative that was the first to qualify for the ballot—and had the promised support of the Marijuana Policy Project, which can funnel important money into a state race. “Prior to having two initiatives on the ballot we were looking at a huge win, and now we are struggling for a win.”
The other measure, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, was cleared for the ballot at the end of August, nearly two months after the initiative. It has a more restricted set of qualifying conditions and allows no home cultivation, unlike the initiative, which allows patients or caregivers to grow marijuana under limited circumstances.
In late September, a retired judge appointed to review the initiative’s petitions as part of a lawsuit found that it had more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, according to the Associated Press. The state Supreme Court also declined Tuesday to reconsider its decision to deny a challenge by a coalition of organizations, including the state Chamber of Commerce and farm bureau, to block votes from being counted on the measure.
A recent poll found that the amendment has more support.
The Talking Business & Politics Hendrix College poll, conducted from Sept. 15 to 17 of 831 likely voters, found 53 percent opposing the initiative; only 36 percent said they supported it with 11 percent undecided.
The amendment, meanwhile, had 49 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed.
“While most Arkansans are either voting for both measures or against both, a full quarter of those opposing the initiative say they will vote for the amendment,” noted Jay Barth, a professor of political science at Hendrix College, in his analysis of the poll.
While the amendment may in the end win, the fighting seems to have decreased support for reform in the state overall. Past studies have found strong support for medical marijuana in Arkansas. The Arkansas Poll, sponsored by the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas, found 68 percent of Arkansans in support of medical marijuana in 2015 and 26 percent opposed, up significantly from 2012 when a ballot measure narrowly failed in the state.
After the 2012 campaign, in which voters rejected medical marijuana 51 percent to 49 percent, proponents split and began working separately.
The Marijuana Policy Project, which supports the initiative, took a pass on devoting resources to the state after the amendment qualified for the ballot at the end of August.
Fults pegged the lost support for her organization’s measure at $1 million.
“We feel like now that there are two initiatives on the ballot neither of them will pass,” said Morgan Fox, communications manager for Marijuana Policy Project. “It will confuse voters more than anything else and it splits support, so we think it will have a very low chance of succeeding if there are two on the ballot.”
High Times columnist and marijuana activist Russ Belville compared the situation to splitting pairs in a game of blackjack.
“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,” Belville wrote. “Too many patients can’t wait for the next hand to be dealt.”
The Marijuana Policy Project says Arkansas has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the nation, with possession of less than four ounces a misdemeanor carrying up to one year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. Possession of an ounce or more can land someone with two previous convictions for possession in prison for up to six years.
The competing measures could make Arkansas the least likely of the nine states voting on marijuana reform to see change this November
Fults is hopeful. She points to another poll, conducted in August, that showed a large majority supporting medical marijuana and her initiative fairing better among voters than the amendment.
She said she started working on the initiative after a loved one struggling with opioid painkillers found relief in marijuana. She believes everything is on the line for Arkansans seeking relief.
“Thousands of patients lives, that’s what’s at stake,” she said.
Read all of HIGH TIMES’ election coverage here.
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