Arkansas Voters Reject Adult-Use Cannabis Bill

Voters Tuesday rejected Issue 4, a measure that would have legalized adult-use cannabis, to the dismay of Arkansas cannabis advocates who worked hard to push the bill forward. 

Led by Responsible Growth Arkansas, advocates promoted the approval of an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution which would have authorized the possession, personal use, and consumption of cannabis by adults 21 and over, as well as the cultivation and sale of cannabis by licensed commercial facilities.

The bill would have authorized licensed dispensaries to sell cannabis produced by licensed medical and adult-use cultivation facilities, including cannabis produced under Amendment 98, beginning on March 8, 2023.

Critics of the bill said it lacked expungement provisions and that it didn’t allow for home growing. And as a constitutional amendment, it would be difficult to make those changes further down the line. Even longtime cannabis advocates in the state opposed the bill because of these omissions.

From the get-go, Issue 4 faced challenges in a state that typically votes conservative. First, state officials, including Arkansas’ secretary of state, challenged the validity of the measure, which would be an amendment to the state’s constitution. Advocates submitted more than enough valid signatures for the proposal to qualify for the ballot, but the state Board of Election Commissioners rejected the measure, explaining that the ballot title did not adequately explain the amendment to voters.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a joint press briefing October 31 at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, joining insurance, construction, truckers, and agriculture officials to speak out against Issue 4.

“This puts us at a disadvantage in [the] recruiting industry if Issue 4 passes,” Hutchinson said, citing how workplace drug testing would be impacted.

Opponents of the bill pointed out that it does not expunge criminal records, nor does it allow for home growing. And if passed, the amendment cannot be altered by the Arkansas State Legislature. For now, only medical cannabis is legal in Arkansas under Amendment 98.

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Arkansas Supreme Court Signs off on Legalization Ballot Measure

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled late Thursday that voters in the state will have the opportunity to decide on a recreational marijuana proposal that will appear on this November’s ballot.

The decision ends a drawn-out dispute over the measure, which would legalize pot for adults aged 21 and older while also establishing a state-regulated marijuana market.

State officials, including Arkansas’ secretary of state, challenged the validity of the measure, which would be an amendment to the state’s constitution.

Activists submitted more than enough valid signatures for the proposal to qualify for the ballot, but the state Board of Election Commissioners rejected the measure, contending that the ballot title did not adequately explain the amendment to voters.

The group behind the proposal, Responsible Growth Arkansas, filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court, which made a preliminary ruling last month that the amendment should appear on the ballot, but held off on deciding whether the votes will actually count.

On Thursday, the court issued its final decision, ruling that the amendment is sufficient and rejecting the Board of Election Commissioners’ authority to deny the proposal in the first place.

As the Associated Press reported, the justices “rejected the board’s arguments for denying the measure” and “also struck down the 2019 law that empowered the board to certify ballot measures.”

According to local news station WREG, the majority opinion said that “the ballot title at issue is complete enough to convey an intelligible idea of the scope and import of the proposed amendment,” and that “Respondents and Intervenors have not met their burden of proving that the ballot title is insufficient.”

“The people will decide whether to approve the proposed amendment in November,” the opinion said.

Responsible Growth Arkansas celebrated the decision.

“We’re extremely grateful to the Supreme Court that they agreed with us and felt like it was a complete validation of everything we’ve done,” said the group’s attorney, Steve Lancaster, as quoted by the Associated Press. “We’re excited and moving on to November.”

The majority also said that the Board of Election Commissioners “has no discretion to determine whether to certify a ballot title,” according to WREG, and that “the Board had no authority to decline to certify the ballot title to the Secretary of State, and its action is without legal effect.”

“I am confident that Arkansans can read this ballot title and understand that a vote for the initiative is a vote in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana and that their decision could have a wide-ranging impact on current medical-marijuana laws and regulations and children. It is for the people—not this court—to exercise the right to amend the constitution, and our court must continue to preserve this first power of the people of Arkansas by not supplanting their decisions with ours,” wrote Justice Rhonda Wood in a concurring opinion, as quoted by WREG.

Another justice, Shawn Womack, “concurred in part with the majority’s opinion but also dissented,” according to WREG, saying that the “ballot title fails to sufficiently advise voters of the magnitude of the change and gives the marijuana industry greater leeway to operate with limited oversight in these areas.”

But Womack also said he’s “confident that Arkansans can read this ballot title and understand that a vote for the initiative is a vote in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana and that their decision could have a wide-ranging impact on current medical-marijuana laws and regulations and children.”

“It is for the people—not this court—to exercise the right to amend the constitution, and our court must continue to preserve this first power of the people of Arkansas by not supplanting their decisions with ours,” Womack said, as quoted by WREG.

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Arkansas Secretary of State Calls Legalization Ballot Measure Insufficient

Arkansas’ secretary of state said on Tuesday that a proposed measure to legalize recreational cannabis in the state is not up to snuff in order to qualify for this year’s ballot.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that Secretary of State John Thurston said “Tuesday in a declaration to the Arkansas Supreme Court the proposed constitutional amendment is insufficient because the State Board of Election Commissioners did not certify the ballot title and popular name.”

A spokesman for Thurston told the Democrat Gazette “he expects the declaration to be filed Tuesday with the state Supreme Court,” and that “the secretary of state’s office believes the declaration is a formality that the state Supreme Court is going through and doesn’t believe the declaration will be the final decision on the recreational marijuana issue.”

On Monday, the state Supreme Court “handed down a per curiam opinion that stated the court had issued a writ of mandamus to the secretary of state’s office to decide the sufficiency of the proposed initiative petition,” the Democrat Gazette reported.

The declaration from the secretary of state represents the latest development in what has become a protracted battle over the legalization proposal.

Last month, the Arkansas Supreme Court said that the measure will indeed appear on this fall’s ballot in the state––but the votes may not actually be counted.

The Fort Smith Times Record reports that the high court’s decision on whether or not the votes will count “could be decided as soon as Thursday.”

The advocacy group behind the proposal, Responsible Growth Arkansas, filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court last month after the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners rejected its name and title.

In July, the group submitted almost thousands of signatures to the Board of Election Commissioners, which rejected the proposal, saying that the title did not adequately explain what the measure would do if it were passed.

The Associated Press reported that commissioners “said they were concerned that the amendment would repeal the state’s current limit under its medical marijuana amendment on how much THC is allowed in edible marijuana products.”

“The type of detail that the board expected, or demanded in this case, would make our ballot title thousands and thousands of words long,” Responsible Growth Arkansas attorney Steven Lancaster said last month. “That just simply is not workable for a ballot.”

“You’re going to see the Responsible Growth Arkansas measure on your ballot. You’ll be able to cast a vote,” Lancaster said last month, as quoted by local station 4029 News. “But what’s going to happen in the interim is the Supreme Court will make its decision, and if they agree with us that our ballot title is good, then the votes will count. Otherwise, if the court decides that our ballot title is not sufficient, they’ll just never count those votes.”

“I’m confident that once the court looks at this, they’re going to agree with us that our ballot title is fine,” Lancaster added. “So I’m, again, confident that … votes are going to count in November.”

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported this week that “Lancaster said he remains confident the court will rule to keep the recreational marijuana issue on the ballot.”

Should the votes count in November, there is good reason to think that legalization is coming to Arkansas.

A poll conducted earlier this year found that a majority of registered voters in the state––53.5%––think that weed should be legal for adults aged 21 and older, while 32% said cannabis should only be legal for medical reasons and 10.5% said that it should be broadly illegal for any reason.

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Recreational Pot Question Back on Arkansas Ballot—But Will Votes Count?

The Arkansas Supreme Court this week said that a marijuana legalization proposal should be placed back on the state’s ballot, but it remains unclear whether the vote will ultimately mean anything.

It is the latest twist in what has become a messy dispute surrounding a campaign to end prohibition in the state. Earlier this month, the advocacy group Responsible Growth Arkansas filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court after the state Board of Election Commissioners rejected the group’s bid to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Organizers with Responsible Growth Arkansas submitted nearly 90,000 valid signatures––well above the threshold to qualify for the ballot––but the Board of Election Commissioners rejected the proposal because “commissioners said they didn’t believe the ballot title fully explained to voters the impact of the amendment,” according to the Associated Press.

“For example, commissioners said they were concerned that the amendment would repeal the state’s current limit under its medical marijuana amendment on how much THC is allowed in edible marijuana products,” the Associated Press reported.

Responsible Growth Arkansas objected to the board’s ruling, arguing that commissioners were asking for an unreasonable amount of information.

“The type of detail that the board expected, or demanded in this case, would make our ballot title thousands and thousands of words long,” Steve Lancaster, an attorney for Responsible Growth Arkansas, said after the board’s vote, as quoted by the Associated Press. “That just simply is not workable for a ballot.”

On Wednesday, the state’s high court sided with the group, but uncertainty remains high.

According to local television station KARK, “the Arkansas Supreme Court instructed Secretary of State John Thurston to certify the ballot title for [recreational] marijuana in order to place it on the November ballot,” which “will allow voters to vote in favor or against expanded access to marijuana in the state.”

But, the station noted, “it remains to be seen if the general election votes will be counted.”

KARK explains: “At issue is the deadlines for items to appear on the November ballot. Any proposed Arkansas constitutional amendment must be certified by the Secretary of State by August 25. The Supreme Court’s schedule, however, will not allow it to hear the case filed by Responsible Growth Arkansas, the group working to put recreational marijuana on the ballot, until September.”

“What that means is that we’re going to be on the ballot. You’re going to see the Responsible Growth Arkansas measure on your ballot. You’ll be able to cast a vote,” Lancaster said, as quoted by local station 4029 News. “But what’s going to happen in the interim is the Supreme Court will make its decision, and if they agree with us that our ballot title is good, then the votes will count. Otherwise, if the court decides that our ballot title is not sufficient, they’ll just never count those votes.”

“I’m confident that once the court looks at this, they’re going to agree with us that our ballot title is fine,” Lancaster continued. “So I’m, again, confident that … votes are going to count in November.”

Arkansas voters narrowly approved a ballot proposal in 2016 that legalized medical cannabis in the state.

A poll earlier this year found that a slight majority of Arkansas voters––53%–– believe that recreational cannabis should be made legal for adults aged 21 and older, while 32% said that it should only be legal for medical purposes.

Only about 10% of those polled said that cannabis should remain broadly illegal.

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Rejected Cannabis Ballot Initiative in Arkansas Taken to Supreme Court

The ballot initiative submitted by the Responsible Growth Arkansas, a cannabis advocacy group, was recently rejected on Aug. 3 by Board of Election Commissioners for its name and title. On Aug. 4, the group filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court to challenge the decision.

As of July 29, Responsible Growth Arkansas provided at least 90,000 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot (the group provided more than was necessary). However, once the Commissioners reviewed the submission, they claimed that the ballot title did not fully explain the amendment description to voters, and specifically stated that the current language would alter Arkansas’s current THC edible restrictions. The proposal in question, called “An amendment to authorize the possession, personal use, and consumption of cannabis by adults, to authorize the cultivation and sale of cannabis by licensed commercial facilities, and to provide for the regulation of those facilities,” would allow possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for adults over 21 years, and would permit state-licensed dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis, if passed.

Commissioner J. Harmon Smith focused on the THC limits for edibles. “If I’m a voter I might be all for this but I’d like to safeguard that edible limit,” Smith said.

Responsible Growth Arkansas’s attorney, Steven Lancaster, explained that this is an unreasonable request. “The type of detail that the board expected, or demanded in this case, would make our ballot title thousands and thousands of words long,” said Lancaster. “That just simply is not workable for a ballot.”

Following the rejection, the group filed a lawsuit to appeal the decision “to challenge the State Board of Election Commissioners’ thwarting of the will of the people and their right to adopt laws by initiative,” the filing states, according to KNWA. “The Board has attacked that heart through its incorrect rejection of the ballot title.” The filing includes a complaint against Secretary of State and Commissioner Chair John Thurston, who had certified that the initiative did receive enough signatures to be placed on the ballot on Aug. 2.

The filing claims that Thurston is required to certify the popular name and ballot title if they “are not misleading.” “The popular name and ballot title are legally sufficient under this Court’s precedent because they give voters an impartial summary of the Amendment that provides a fair understanding of the issues presented and of the scope and significance of the proposed changes to the law,” the filing continues. “Nothing is omitted that would give voters serious grounds for reflection, and nothing in the popular name and ballot title is misleading in any way. The Board thus erred in denying certification.”

Ultimately, the lawsuit claims that the rejection was unconstitutional, and asks for a preliminary injunction from the Supreme Court to include the ballot initiative, “because it is unlikely that the Court will decide this action before the August 25 deadline for certification for the Amendment to appear on the November 2022 ballot.”

Just before the initiative was rejected by Commissioners, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed his opposition to the recreational cannabis initiative while speaking at the Arkansas Municipal Police Association on Aug. 3. “And the reason I oppose it is simply this: that it will increase the usage of marijuana,” Hutchinson said. “I believe that marijuana is a harmful drug. It is as simple as that. I look back to Alaska. In the 70s, they decriminalized marijuana. Marijuana use went up dramatically, particularly among their teens, and Alaska reversed courses and re-criminalized marijuana.”

Hutchinson claimed that cannabis is “harmful.” “Now, they’re going to sell this as something that’s going to help law enforcement. Fifteen percent of the revenue from the taxes on the sales of marijuana will go to a fund to support law enforcement stipends, 10% of it will go to UAMS in Little Rock, and 5% will go to drug courts,” Hutchinson continued. “And so, once again, they’re selling a harmful drug to the citizens of Arkansas based upon promises that look good. Now, those promises might be a reality, but I think you’ve got to be prepared for this debate.”

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Arkansas Weed Legalization Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot

Arkansas state officials announced last week that a proposed ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana has received enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Activists with the group Responsible Growth Arkansas, which is headed by former Arkansas Democratic House minority leader Eddie Armstrong, submitted the petitions to the secretary of state’s office last month, saying at the time they had collected more than twice as many signatures necessary to qualify the proposal for this year’s general election.

Kevin Niehaus, a spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, said after signature counters reached 90,000 verified signatures on Thursday night they notified the Responsible Growth Arkansas campaign that the constitutional amendment initiative had been approved for the November ballot. State officials will now concentrate their efforts on verifying signatures for a separate measure to amend Arkansas’ casino gambling statute.

“Because of the time frame to get this done, they stopped at 90,000 verified signatures and now have moved on to the casino petition,” Niehaus said on Friday. “Knowing how many signatures they still had left to go and with it already reaching 90,000 signatures, they felt comfortable saying they made it.”

Arkansas Initiative Would Legalize Recreational Weed

If the initiative is successful at the polls in November, it would legalize cannabis for use by adults 21 and over. The proposal would also allow the state’s existing medical pot growers and dispensaries to apply for adult-use cannabis licenses. Another 40 licenses, to be awarded through a lottery system, would also be issued for recreational marijuana operations. The total number of licenses statewide would be limited to 20 cultivation and 120 dispensary licenses, including those for existing medical marijuana businesses.

In July, Responsible Growth Arkansas submitted petitions containing 192,828 signatures of voters supporting the legalization amendment. Under state law, the group needed 10% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, or 89,151 signatures, to qualify for this year’s ballot. Officials with the campaign said that support for the initiative effort was strong across the state.

“It was across the entire state, and it really shows a broad level of support geographically,” said Steve Lancaster, counsel for Responsible Growth Arkansas. “To get that many signatures from Arkansans it can’t be all Democrats, or all Republicans, or all Independents. You need a large swath of Arkansans to get that many signatures. The people want to vote on this and make this decision themselves.”

“We are really grateful for the voters who signed our petitions and appreciative to the secretary of state’s office for verifying our signatures,” Lancaster added.

Before the measure is officially approved for the ballot, the proposal’s ballot title and popular name must be approved by the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners. Lancaster said that a meeting of the panel is expected to take place on Wednesday.

Two Initiative Proposals Vying for Voters’ Attention

The effort by Responsible Growth Arkansas is one of two proposals to legalize adult-use cannabis in the state. A separate measure from activists to qualify the Arkansas Adult Use and Expungement Marijuana Amendment for the ballot has been pushed back until 2024. Under that proposal, the number of business licenses would be set as a proportion of the state’s population. The proposal also includes provisions for the home cultivation of cannabis, expungement of past pot-related convictions, and assistance for low-income medical cannabis patients.

Patient advocate Melissa Fults, who opposes the Responsible Growth Arkansas measure, hopes that voters will wait until 2024 to legalize recreational pot. She is also skeptical of the number of signatures submitted by the campaign.

“It’s kind of strange,” she said. “We were told by supposedly very reliable sources they only had 79,000 signatures at the start of June. In 30 days they got 120,000 signatures during one of the hottest summers around. I am really concerned about how valid those signatures are.”

But Niehaus noted that the secretary of state’s office uses software that goes through the submitted petitions page by page to verify the number of signatures.

“It verifies if they are a registered voter and makes sure they didn’t accidentally sign a petition two or three times,” Niehuas said.

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Former Arkansas Lawmaker Launches Cannabis Legalization Campaign

A group headed by a former Arkansas lawmaker has joined the charge to reform cannabis policy in the state by organizing a group to campaign for a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana. Eddie Armstrong, a former Democratic state representative from North Little Rock, is listed as the chair of the organization Responsible Growth Arkansas in a filing with the Arkansas Ethics Commission submitted on October 15.

The text of the proposed constitutional amendment had not yet been filed with the office of the Arkansas Secretary of State as of the beginning of the week. The group’s statement of organization, however, notes that the organization will “advocate for the passage of an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to allow the regulated sale of adult-use cannabis in the state,” according to media reports. 

In an email to reporters, Armstrong wrote that more details of the proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational cannabis will be released in the upcoming weeks.

Armstrong is a former minority leader of the Arkansas State House of Representatives, where he served as a legislator from 2013 to 2019. He is also a founder of Cannabis Capital Corp., a Chicago-based consulting firm serving the medical marijuana industry, according to a 2019 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Medical Marijuana Legalized in 2016

Arkansas voters legalized medical marijuana in 2016 with the passage of Issue 6, a constitutional amendment ballot measure that received 53 percent of the vote. Under the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, patients can receive a doctor’s recommendation to possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for the treatment of one or more qualifying medical conditions.

Medical marijuana dispensaries began serving patients in 2019. However, statutory limits on the number of cannabis cultivators and retailers could soon leave patients with an inadequate supply of medicine, says medical marijuana advocate Melissa Fults.

“There can only be a maximum of 40 dispensaries and that is not enough to cover the state of Arkansas,” said Fults. “They kept spouting that it was only going to 30,000 patients. We’re about to hit 80,000.”

Separate Cannabis Legalization Amendment Also Proposed

Responsible Growth Arkansas is not the only organization campaigning to legalize adult-use cannabis in the state. Under a separate ballot measure from Arkansas True Grass known as the Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2022, cannabis would be legalized for adults ages 21 and older, including provisions to cultivate up to 12 cannabis plants at home. The measure would also release nonviolent marijuana offenders from incarceration, probation and parole and expunge records of past marijuana convictions. 

The proposed constitutional amendment would also establish a regulatory structure for the production and sale of recreational marijuana. Sales of adult-use cannabis would be subject to an eight percent marijuana excise tax in addition to the state sales tax. Local jurisdictions would also be permitted to levy a five percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.

Jesse Raphael, a spokesperson for Arkansas True Grass, said that the adult-use cannabis measure would also support the state’s medical marijuana program.

“Medicine in Arkansas is very good but very expensive for the patients. We’d like to see that changed with patients also able to grow their own,” Raphael told local media earlier this month.

For either cannabis legalization measure to qualify for the ballot under state law, supporters must collect at least 89,151 signatures of registered voters, a figure equal to 10 percent of the ballots cast for governor in the 2018 general election. Under legislation signed into law this year, canvassers collecting signatures for proposed ballot measures must be residents of Arkansas and may not be paid on a per-signature basis. The deadline for gathering signatures is July 8, 2022.

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