Columns » Jay Barth

Arkansas pot politics


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Many have noted the extraordinary shifts in attitudes about marriage equality in recent years, leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell decision in late June. Somewhat overwhelmed by those waves in public opinion have been shifts in attitudes regarding marijuana legalization in the United States that are just as abrupt (and similarly generationally driven). While Arkansas has seen less change on marriage issue attitudes than all but a few states, recent polling suggests that movement in Arkansans' attitudes regarding marijuana looks much more like national patterns. Because Arkansas is a direct democracy state, we may well see those attitudes translated into a change in the state's drug laws relatively quickly, making the politics of pot central to Arkansas's political debates in the coming years.

In the general election in 2012, a shift of just over 15,000 votes would have made Arkansas the first Southern state to legalize medical marijuana. The result was surprising because pre-election surveys had shown voter opposition to the measure. (Indeed, showing Arkansas voters' hesitancy to confess their support for the measure, even a post-election survey indicated much wider opposition to the measure than on Election Day.)

The nearly three years since Arkansas voters' consideration of the ballot measure has seen continued movement nationally on issues related to marijuana. A number of additional states have legalized medical marijuana, with 23 states (all non-Southern) and the District of Columbia now having comprehensive medical marijuana laws. An additional 17 states have taken a step in that direction through the adoption of laws allowing low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD) products for medical purposes. Finally, four states and the District of Columbia have approved the purchase and use of recreational marijuana. All these reforms at the state level have occurred with the Obama administration sending the clear signal that it will not enforce federal anti-drug laws in locales that have taken steps to legalize through the democratic process.

A Talk Business-Hendrix College survey of Arkansas voters released last week indicates that Arkansans have become quite comfortable with the notion of medical marijuana in the state. Amazing considering the close 2012 vote, 84 percent of Arkansas adults now either "strongly" (56 percent) or "somewhat" (28 percent) agree that adults should be allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes if prescribed by a physician. There are two important caveats to what was good news for advocates of expanding marijuana accessibility: First, support for a concept is not a vote at the ballot box and, second, allowing patients to "grow their own" marijuana — a provision included in the 2012 proposal — remains a concern to Arkansas voters with a slight majority opposing that provision. Still, the overall attitudinal movement on the issue in such a short period is extraordinary.

A future debate in Arkansas is likely to be on the recreational use of marijuana. While the same survey shows that a majority of Arkansas voters continue to oppose the legalization of marijuana, the trajectory also seems positive for that concept. While voters do see marijuana as addictive, they believe it to be less problematic to health than either alcohol or cigarettes. Overall, 42 percent of Arkansans favor full legalization and a slight majority (51 percent) oppose it. Most important is an examination of different subsets of Arkansas voters by age. Just over two-thirds (68 percent) of the state's youngest voters support marijuana legalization while the same percentage of the state's voters 65 and older opposes it. Thus, with every passing day, sentiment toward legalization in Arkansas grows.

While we are just getting data on the broader social ramifications of legalization in the first states to fully implement a dispensary-based system, the implications for tax coffers are clear. Colorado, for example, has raised $152 million in taxes and fees since the implementation of recreational marijuana (and the amount is growing year over year); because the revenues have exceeded projections, voters there will actually consider in November whether to keep the extra dollars in the state's general revenues or return it to the voters under a "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" provision. While no exact projection in revenues has been established for the establishment of regulated (and taxed) recreational marijuana in Arkansas it would clearly have a benefit in the $10s of millions annually.

Those advocating the expansion of legal marijuana in Arkansas seem to have two strategic choices. First, they could gain a probable lay-up by putting to the voters a carefully crafted (i.e. no "grow your own") medical marijuana amendment, normalize a system of regulated marijuana in the state, and then add recreational marijuana to that system at a later date. Or, they could move forward sooner with the creation of a scheme combining medical and recreational marijuana in the same legalized system. Here, they would face an additional choice: Do they tie new tax revenues to funding a popular initiative (like roads or higher education) and pull in a coalition partner or do they allow funds to go to general revenues in return for quieting opposition from anti-tax political leaders looking for a pathway for more tax cuts?

Questions abound, but it's clear that pot will be part of the future of the Arkansas political debate.


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