With a surprisingly strong vote, 53 percent of Arkansas's voters said last Nov. 8 that they wanted to bring medical marijuana to the state. This creation of a medical marijuana program via vote of the people came over the strong objections of Governor Hutchinson, most all of the state's other elected officials and those charged with implementing health policy in the state. In the aftermath of the election, while most (including Hutchinson) have fairly gracefully accepted the will of the people, a few political leaders continue to resist medical marijuana at every turn.
Over two dozen bills have been introduced in the current legislative session to amend the constitutional amendment in large and small ways. The amendment itself did allow the legislature (by a two-thirds vote in both houses) to reform the program as long as core key provisions — the right for those with certain medical conditions to use marijuana without fear of prosecution and the number of dispensaries and cultivation sites — were not touched. Some of the bills that have been introduced are only intended to implement the program in a more methodical manner than at the breakneck pace laid out in the amendment, providing more time for the commission established to run the program a few more weeks to get rules and regulations finalized. Indeed, it's good public policy to get a major new program done correctly on the front end.
Other legislation — mostly carried by Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), who was tasked with leading the charge on medical marijuana's implementation — simply fleshes out elements of what was already a fairly detailed amendment. One bill that is already law clarifies doctors' role in the process as a fairly limited one in which they simply confirm that the individual has been previously diagnosed with one of the qualifying conditions. Other legislation that will be passed creates new licensing requirements for those who move pot from a cultivation facility to a dispensary. Finally, new legislation will regulate the advertising of medical marijuana. (The quote of the legislative session by House: "We don't want a dancing bear and flying rabbits and stuff on the advertising that would cause kids to want to frequent these establishments."). While the ban on advertising veers into choppy constitutional waters because medical marijuana is now a legal product in Arkansas, this set of bills does little to undermine availability or use of medical marijuana.
Other legislation, however, proposes to more fundamentally undermine the intent of the medical marijuana program. These include a proposal to delay implementation until the federal government changes its policy toward medical marijuana (currently illegal, of course). Another bans the smoking of marijuana, meaning that marijuana could be delivered only by edibles. To close that loophole, another bill would ban edibles except in rare cases.
A new Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll released this week indicates that Arkansans meant it when they voted for medical marijuana last year, as majorities of the state's voters oppose these efforts to undermine implementation. The survey examined attitudes about the proposals to delay implementation until federal legalization and the ban on smoking. On both issues, while about the same percentage of voters who favored the measure oppose intrusions into it, younger voters, men, African Americans and political independents were most thoroughly opposed to the provisions not included in the original amendment.
There is one more outstanding piece of legislation that may create the most interesting battle of the session in the area of medical marijuana. House Bill 1460 would protect employers from lawsuits if they took action, including termination, against employees who violated a substance-free workplace but were qualified users of medical marijuana. This legislation would seem to bump up against the commitment in the amendment that users may not be discriminated against in the workplace. With strong backing from business interests in a business-friendly legislature, HB 1460 could well get the required supermajority. As shown from the flurry of action in both the legislature and the Medical Marijuana Commission, medical marijuana in Arkansas has already been a boon for the lobbying industry. It may also soon begin to benefit lawyers as laws that may be in conflict with it are tested in court.
During the state's century-long experimentation with direct democracy, Arkansas's voters have occasionally done good with the power they have to create policy at the ballot box (modernizing the state's courts and county government) and just as often done ill (barring same-sex couples from access to marriage and the state's public education institutions from teaching evolution). But, as shown in the aftermath of the creation of a complicated (and imperfect) medical marijuana program through Issue 6, the voters are strong believers that their will should be respected. Politicians who ignore that may well pay a price.