The Arkansas Legislature has not been happy about some of the previous ballot issues approved by voters, such as those raising the minimum wage, creating the medical marijuana industry and legalizing casinos in Crittenden, Garland, Pope and Jefferson counties. The legislature has proposed Issue 2 on the ballot, which supporters say is much-needed safeguard for the state’s initiative and constitutional amendment process.
“It is entirely too easy to amend our state constitution,” states the non-partisan voter guide – produced by the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Public Policy Center – regarding what supporters are saying about the proposed amendment. “We shouldn’t amend our constitution in some sort of willy-nilly fashion. The state’s lenient rules make it vulnerable to big money and out-of-state interests that would want to hijack our process and push their own pet projects and hobby horse issues.”
Issue 2 would raise the bar for passing a constitutional amendment to 60% of voters instead of the current 50%. Issue 2 is opposed by Protect AR Rights, a coalition of local grassroots and nonprofit groups which states that, “Issue 2 is an attempt by politicians in Little Rock to fool voters into giving away their power, so they can get what they want, instead of what the people want.”
However, Issue 4, which opponents say would create a highly lucrative recreational marijuana monopoly for existing medical marijuana cultivators and dispensary owners, could be the kind of constitutional amendment described by proponents of Issue 2. Polls have shown that about 58% of Arkansas voters approve of legal use of marijuana by adults. But amending the Arkansas Constitution to provide huge profits for a few doesn’t sit well with two of the biggest players in the state regarding medicinal and recreational marijuana use.
“It is all about money,” Melissa Fults, executive director of Drug Policy Education Group and Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, said. “This amendment was written by the owners of existing medical marijuana cultivation facilities. . . .The petition campaign was funded by those same owners. The cultivator owners got this written, they financed it and are the only people who are going to benefit from it.”
David Couch, author of the successful medical marijuana amendment, said his biggest concern is that Issue 4 would establish a system that is anti-competitive. Couch, one of the most experienced attorneys in the state at drafting and promoting ballot issues, said Issue 4 “was written in a very deceptive manner so that voters think they are getting recreational personal use marijuana and they are getting that – if that is all you are concerned about – if you don’t care about costs and you don’t care who makes millions and millions off your choice. The cultivators and dispensaries set this up to enhance their own profits.”
However, there could be huge financial benefits to the state, including to tourism industries. Michael Pakko, chief economist, Arkansas Economic Development Institute (AEDI), has done a study estimating that the adult-use marijuana market could add up to $2.36 billion to the state’s gross domestic product over the first five years, and add 6,400 jobs by 2027.
Issue 4 would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis by adults 21 and over. Possession of larger amounts, or possession by individuals under 21 years of age, would remain illegal. There are no provisions for people to grow their own or to expunge previous marijuana convictions.
Eddie Armstrong, chair of the ballot question committee for Responsible Growth Arkansas, the group supporting the amendment, said that limiting the number of licensees to grow and sell cannabis to a total of 20 cultivators and 120 dispensaries statewide, including existing medical licensees, would help law enforcement keep cannabis out of the hands of minors and off the black market.
“I think this is a good business choice for Arkansas,” Armstrong said. “The cultivators in this industry understand it fully and well. The cultivators and dispensary owners saw there are opportunities to expand to adult recreational use in a way that is responsible and well-regulated. It will bring forth huge economic benefits to the city and state, will create thousands of new jobs, and will allow hiring more police officers to work on higher crimes, like the fentanyl problem.”
Another problem opponents have with Issue 4 is concerns about it gutting the state’s hemp and CBD industries. Couch says that cannabis is defined in Issue 4 as Cannabis sativa, which includes hemp.
“This amendment actually puts regulation of hemp into the marijuana amendment, which means people in Arkansas who now grow hemp will no longer be able to grow and process it,” Couch said. “Consumers won’t be able to buy CBD products anywhere except the dispensaries allowed under Issue 4. I think the backers of Issue 4 did this on purpose.”
Armstrong described Couch’s assertion about hemp as “unfortunate misinformation. It will not kill what we already have as an established hemp industry.”