Recreational marijuana backers set 2022 goal

Tj 3-18i-1

LITTLE ROCK -- One of two groups pushing for a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas is abandoning its efforts and will focus on getting the measure on the 2022 ballot, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Arkansas True Grass, the backers of a proposed amendment to legalize marijuana use and expunge previous drug convictions, was unable to continue its signature-gathering efforts because of the covid-19 pandemic, said Briana Boling, a representative for the group. The group had been aiming for the Nov. 3 ballot.

"With the virus and everything, we weren't able to do any of our spring events," Boling said.

Like other advocacy groups for constitutional amendments, True Grass faced a July 3 deadline to gather nearly 90,000 signatures from voters to get its proposal on the ballot. When the pandemic hit, Boling said the group's organizers mailed 350 petition forms to canvassers in hopes of collecting the signatures remotely, but only received four back.

In addition, she said, the group faced an approaching deadline to spend nearly $2,000 to run the text of its amendment in the newspaper.

"Us knowing we didn't have the signatures, it would have been a waste of money to print that ad," Boling said.

Meanwhile, another group hoping to qualify a recreational marijuana amendment for the November ballot, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, is continuing its signature-gathering efforts, said the group's director, Melissa Fults.

According to recent reports filed with the state Ethics Commission, Fults' group has raised almost seven times as much money for its efforts compared to True Grass. Arkansans for Cannabis Reform has spent more than $20,000 to hire a canvassing company to help collect signatures in recent months, while True Grass reported spending less than $5,000 total over two years.

Still, Fults' said the group's efforts to gather signatures had gone "quiet" because of restrictions put in place on businesses and public gatherings to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Fults' said her group has collected just over 20,000 signatures.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled Arkansas' laws requiring petitions be signed in person were unconstitutional, paving the way for groups to gather electronic signatures. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to create a new system for redrawing legislative and congressional districts after the Census.

"I think that might be the best thing in the world to happen to us so far," Fults said of the ruling.

Meanwhile, Arkansas True Grass is still setting its sights on 2022, Boling said.

The group recently filed a revised copy of its proposed amendment with the secretary of state's office, Boling said. She said the new draft would require dispensary owners to have been a resident of the state for at least three years.

Boling said she started collecting new signatures for the group's 2022 amendment over the weekend, and has gathered 10 so far.

Arkansas voters approved Amendment 98 to the state constitution, to legalize medical marijuana, by about 6 percentage points in 2016. The vote made Arkansas one of the first states in the South to legalize medical marijuana. However, the first legal sales of pot did not begin until last May.

There are 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. None are in the South.

NW News on 05/27/2020