Medical marijuana took one step closer to hitting the South on Wednesday, when Arkansas’ Secretary of State office confirmed that the issue will be on the ballot there this November. Arkansans for Compassionate Care handed in 69,000 valid signatures – well over the necessary 62,507 – for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, which would set up non-profit organizations to cultivate and sell pot, while allowing patients who live more than five miles from a dispensary to grow their own. The November vote will mark the first time that voters in a Southern state can decide whether to legalize medical pot, and could make Arkansas the U.S.’ 18th medical weed state.
The proposed legislation has made Arkansas ground zero for marijuana reform in the South, where weed laws tend to be ultra-harsh. “We are in the Bible Belt – this isn’t generally one of the states that is a hotbed for marijuana reform or policy,” Ryan Denham, Campaign Director for the ACC, told Opposing Views earlier this year. “If passed, this will send a strong message nationally . . . Marijuana is medicine and it is time we recognize that on a national level.”
The initiative qualifies medical marijuana for a variety of conditions – including cancer, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder – as well as other diseases that produce symptoms pot is known to help soothe, like nausea, muscle spasms and seizures. While recognizing marijuana’s illegality under federal law, the act would exempt from prosecution those who qualify for participation in the Arkansas program.
Arkansas has long had some of the strictest weed laws in the U.S., but the state has begun liberalizing its policies in recent years. Two towns – Eureka Springs and Fayetteville – have made personal possession of less than an an ounce a low priority, a non-arrestable offense. And last year, sentencing reforms reduced many weed offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, reducing the number of pot prisoners in a state known for locking them up.
Conservative organizations like Arkansas’ Family Council may be gearing up for a public relations war now that medical pot is headed to the ballot. “Putting Arkansas in the middle of all of this just doesn’t make sense. Why would we want to pass a law that blatantly violates federal law?” Jerry Cox, the council’s president, said in a statement this week. “Why would we invite that kind of turmoil to Arkansas?”
For now, though, Arkansans’ level of support for the initiative is not definitively known. Last month, a poll conducted by Hendrix College and Talk Business found that the state’s citizens were evenly split – 47 percent in favor of legalizing medical weed and 46 percent against.