It's a robust year for grassroots democracy in Arkansas.
A measure to increase the natural gas severance tax, pushed by city governments that want road improvement money it would produce, may be headed to the ballot. It is opposed already by $1.5 million spent by the gas industry, with millions more to come.
Some Branson, Mo., businessmen are underwriting a casino gambling amendment. If it passes, their relatively small investment could be worth tens of millions in four permits for casinos virtually untouchable by legislative hands. The casino at Southland Park in West Memphis is spending heavily to oppose casino gambling — by others — in Arkansas. The casino at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs will undoubtedly join the fray if the measure should move forward.
I've written often about the initiative to stiffen Arkansas ethics law, another pure grassroots drive aided by a comparatively small amount of money from a bipartisan group of good government people. It may reach its goal on a short timetable, even without the significant municipal lobby that the gas tax people were able to put to use.
Then we go to pot. It is the latest version of a long-running effort to get a medical marijuana law on the election ballot. It's a detailed proposal, full of regulation aimed at presenting the appearance of law aimed truly at medicinal, rather than recreational, use. If the polling is accurate, this measure should pass if it reaches the ballot. The petition gathering has been far quieter than that of some other measures, but no less, maybe more, organized and persistent. Fears of "Reefer Madness" have long been put to rest with most people. Far more persuasive are the stories of sick people who've found relief from marijuana that no other substance can provide, as Cheree Franco wrote in the Times.
The topic comes to mind this morning because the New York Times has written about how the federal government's persistence in enforcing laws against marijuana sales has caused problems in cities and states where medical use of marijuana has been legalized.
The federal authorities, their critics say, have indiscriminately targeted good and bad dispensaries, sometimes putting the best ones out of business. The crackdown, the critics say, has made it difficult for qualified Californians to obtain marijuana for medical use and is just pushing buyers into the black market.
Acting on federal law, which considers all possession and distribution of marijuana to be illegal, California’s four United States attorneys, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, have shut down at least 500 dispensaries statewide in the last eight months by sending letters to operators, landlords and local officials, warning of criminal charges and the seizure of assets. The United States attorneys said the dispensaries were violating not only federal law but also state law, which requires operators to be primary caregivers to their customers and distribute marijuana only for medical purposes.
“We’re not concerned in prosecuting patients or people who are legitimate caregivers for ill people, who are in good faith complying with state law,” said Benjamin B. Wagner, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of California. “But we are concerned about large commercial operations that are generating huge amounts of money by selling marijuana in this essentially unregulated free-for-all that exists in California.”
Backers of the Arkansas proposal insist it has been more tightly drawn to prevent abuses that have led to prosecutorial attention in California. Much as I support the move toward legal medical use, I'd still be unsurprised if the availability of legal marijuana didn't result in, say, a tremendous rise in newly diagnosed cases of fibromyalgia, one of the conditions for which the drug could be prescribed. I was asked about marijuana legalization during a class at Governor's School at Hendrix yesterday. I do believe I heard a small cheer when I predicted the proposed measure would pass in Arkansas if it reaches the ballot. This cheer reflected, I'm sure, no more than empathy among Arkansas teens for people with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and other covered conditions who'd be well served by the law.