State facing choice on legalizing recreational marijuana with passage of Issue 4

Initiative’s backers, critics divided on whether it delivers jobs or junkies

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif.
FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif.

Arkansas decides next month whether it will become the first state in the South to legalize recreational marijuana.

The proposed amendment to the state's constitution, known as Issue 4, would legalize the possession of 1 ounce of cannabis for those 21 and older. If passed, the amendment would have the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration regulate marijuana and the state could issue up to 120 dispensary licenses and 20 licenses for growers. The number includes current medical marijuana licenses.

The amendment would not change federal law, which still outlaws marijuana. If passed, employers could still drug-test and discipline employees for failing. If approved, the amendment would take effect in March.

But in Arkansas, adults 21 and older could purchase and keep up to 1 ounce of the drug for recreational use, although growing the plant at home will not be allowed.

The amendment would need a simple majority to pass. The state's medical dispensaries and cultivators will get licenses if the amendment passes. If approved, Arkansas could become the 20th state to legalize the drug for recreational use, joining the likes of Colorado, California, Alaska, Montana and New Jersey.


The campaign for the amendment is led by the ballot question committee Responsible Growth Arkansas. The group, headed by former state lawmaker Eddie Armstrong, has campaigned on promises the amendment would create thousands of new jobs and bring millions of dedicated tax dollars for police and cancer research.

Last month, the Arkansas Economic Development Institute showed marijuana legalization could bring $460 million to the state's budget over five years thanks in part to sales taxes that would be levied on the drug.

The report stated it would add an estimated $210 million to the state's general revenue funds, create about 6,400 jobs and increase Arkansas' gross domestic product by $2.36 billion over five years. Proponents of legalization cite the amendment would earmark funding to law enforcement, specifically for stipends for officers.

"You're not hearing on [the] news rights now that there is a shooting or a stabbing over cannabis," Armstrong said. "Our law enforcement officers need the support to be able to hire officers at a good rate of pay that [will] keep our communities safe."

Opponents of the amendment have a long list of reasons to vote down Issue 4 and have said voters should be skeptical of "pie in the sky" promises about economic growth, jobs and tax revenue.

Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group opposed to legalized cannabis, said studies showing economic growth from legal marijuana often do not factor in costs that go along with legalization, such as an increase in traffic accidents and emergency room visits.

"We should never have a discussion of revenues without a discussion of costs," Niforatos said. "Before any decision is made, voters should have an idea of what the cost is to the state."

For many, marijuana legalization is a societal change that is a step too far. Political leaders, including Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, have come out against the proposed amendment, calling marijuana a "gateway drug."

Easier access to marijuana would mean more access to it for recovering drug addicts and others prone to addiction, opponents say. While marijuana may not be anywhere as harmful or addictive as narcotics, it is harmful nonetheless, they contend.

"Is it every time someone fires up a joint, a doobie, that they're going to become addicted to meth? Of course not, but there's many that do because that wears off, it's not the same rush," said David Burnett, chair of Save Arkansas From Epidemic, a nonprofit that opposes the amendment.


Among the top concerns for those against the amendment is the access children could have to the drug. The amendment includes language mandating cannabis products be sold in "child-resistant packaging," but critics argue that kind of standard is not stringent enough to keep children away from the drug.

Many cannabis products, such as THC-infused gummies, could appeal to unsuspecting children and child-resistant packaging is not as strong as child-proof standards, critics argued.

In response, advocates said marijuana will face more scrutiny than alcohol, which does not need to be in child-proof containers. Decisions to lock up and store legal but dangerous items for children such as firearms and alcohol are a responsibility for adults, Armstrong said. The amendment also bans any marijuana advertising geared toward children.

Those against the amendment also said legalized recreational marijuana will lead to more people driving under the influence, and that more impaired drivers will lead to more car accidents and fatalities.

"On alcohol, if you go drinking and you get in your vehicle drive there are tests police can perform to see if you are over the limit, or if you are impaired," said Burnett, who is chief of police of the Fairfield Bay Police Department. "There is no test that can be performed for marijuana."

Lance Huey, a former Arkansas state trooper and Grant County sheriff, is a proponent of legalization and said there are many drugs, including legal prescription drugs, that impair drivers while having no roadside test.

For many, the amendment's ballot title is misleading as it does not list a limit for the amount of THC on cannabis products. Ultimately, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing the amendment to remain on the ballot.

For proponents of legalization, the amendment is the end of decades of fighting against marijuana in Arkansas. Adults can enjoy bourbon or beer, Armstrong said, so they should they be able to smoke a joint or eat a THC gummy.

Huey said legalizing marijuana would mean police could focus more on serious crimes rather than petty possession.

"Gone are the days when we want to continue to arrest people for small possessions of marijuana," Armstrong said.

Additionally, the amendment would allocate funds to state drug courts, where some can get help for addiction rather than face incarceration for low-level drug offenses.

Opposition to the amendment includes some pro-marijuana legalization advocates.

Melissa Fults, a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization, has aligned herself with the Family Council Action Committee, a conservative advocacy group opposed to legalizing marijuana, to urge Arkansans to vote against the proposed amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana.

Fults helped lead the 2016 referendum campaign to legalize recreational marijuana and supports legalizing the drug recreationally, but she said the proposed amendment is a corporate giveaway because currently licensed medical dispensaries will have the option to get licensed to sell recreational marijuana.

[ISSUE 4: Read the ballot title for proposed constitutional amendment »]

"This amendment is not a start; it is a brick wall," Fults said. "We can go no further. We will be at the mercy of a handful of people that don't really care about the patients or the people. They care about the money."

The amendment does not include a provision for home growing. Even if voters approve the amendment, people will still not be allowed to legally grow marijuana plants at home.

Notably, the amendment does not include any expungement of records for those convicted of marijuana offenses, something that Fults said is critical.

For some, the amendment's definition of cannabis is also an issue. According to the ballot title, cannabis will be defined by law as "Cannabis sativa," the scientific name for the plant that also includes hemp, used mostly for industrial purposes.

Some worry the definition could mean stringent regulation of cannabis products such as hemp and CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical.

Armstrong said the amendment cannot be all things to all people, calling it a step in the right direction, and said the state could tackle expungement or other measures in a future ballot title.

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