Arkansas officials OK signatures for recreational marijuana initiative

State office OKs signatures so far

Steve Lancaster, counsel for Responsible Growth Arkansas, turns in petition signatures July 8 to Leslie Bellamy (left), director of elections, and Shantell McGraw at the secretary of state’s office. Officials reported verification of 90,000 signatures Thursday, putting the group’s proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana a step closer to getting on the Nov. 8 ballot. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Petitioners for Responsible Growth Arkansas gathered the required number of valid signatures, moving the proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana one step closer to appearing on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

Kevin Niehaus, spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state's office, said after signature counters reached 90,000 verified signatures Thursday night they advised Responsible Growth Arkansas officials that the proposed amendment had been approved to go before voters.

"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 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."

The proposal is one of two initiatives that petitioners are trying to get on the November ballot. Secretary of State officials also are reviewing signatures submitted for another proposal that would scale back a casino gambling measure approved by voters in 2018.

Niehaus said the group expects to finish verifying the rest of the signatures for the recreational marijuana measure in the next week or so.

Petitioners for Responsible Growth Arkansas said in July they had submitted 192,828 signatures, more than twice the number required, in their bid to qualify the measure for the general election ballot.

"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."

For a proposed constitutional amendment to be placed on the November ballot, a group must gather at least 89,151 valid signatures of registered voters, or 10% of the votes cast for governor in the 2018 general election.

"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 said.

The proposal's popular name and ballot title still must be approved by the state Board of Election Commissioners to qualify for the ballot. Lancaster said that a meeting is expected to occur Wednesday.

The amendment would issue adult-use cannabis cultivation and dispensary licenses to businesses that already hold licenses under the state's medical marijuana program, followed by an additional 40 licenses chosen by a lottery.

The initiative limits the sale of cannabis to people 21 or older and prohibits advertising and packaging designed to appeal to children. It provides regulatory oversight by limiting the number of licensed businesses and does not allow for homegrown cannabis.

It also limits the number of cannabis licenses to 20 cultivators and 120 dispensaries statewide, which includes existing medical marijuana licenses.

Arkansas medical marijuana patient advocate Melissa Fults, who opposes the Responsible Growth Arkansas measure, said she is skeptical of the number of signatures collected by the group.

"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."

Niehaus said the secretary of state's office uses software that goes 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," he said.

Lancaster said he hasn't heard of any lawsuits that have been filed against the petition process, but he said he knows there is a warehouse full of signatures that can be counted.

"We feel pretty confident that if people do challenge the signatures, there are plenty in reserve to defeat any challenge," he said. "But I am not aware of any such challenge."

Fults said she won't file a lawsuit against the proposed amendment, but that she knows of several organizations that will.

"I would say 99% of the people in the marijuana world are against it," she said. "The only ones who are for it are the ones who have not read it."

Fults has pushed back efforts to get the Arkansas Adult Use and Expungement Marijuana Amendment on the ballot until 2024, and she said she hopes voters will wait on that measure instead of choosing the one backed by Responsible Growth Arkansas.

Her proposal would allow for an expungement provision for people with marijuana-related charges on their records. It also would allow for a number of cannabis businesses proportional to the state's population, put in protections for employees, help lower-income patients get medical cannabis and allow for homegrown cannabis.

Fults said she is against the Responsible Growth Arkansas measure because it disenfranchises patients, limits the number of dispensaries and cultivators, doesn't include expungement of marijuana crimes and doesn't allow for in-home grow plants.

In 2016, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 98, which created the state's medical marijuana program. Arkansas' first dispensaries opened in 2019, and there are now 38 in operation.

A poll by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College published Feb. 15 showed majority support among Arkansas voters for broadening the legalization of marijuana. About 53% of 961 likely voters surveyed said marijuana should be legal for all adults 21 and older.

Currently, a simple public majority is required for approval of proposed constitutional amendments and initiated acts, but a legislative proposal set to be on the ballot in November would raise that threshold to 60% if approved.

Since 2019, patients have spent more than $639 million to obtain 98,793 pounds of medical cannabis, according to state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin.

Medical marijuana patients spent $24 million at dispensaries in April, obtaining 4,213 pounds of cannabis, according to the department. On average, patients spend $22.45 million each month among the state's 38 dispensaries to purchase approximately 3,919 pounds of marijuana.