State Sen. Randy Laverty of Jasper says that after the news media reported last month on his proposal to legalize medical marijuana, he got more response than on any issue he'd been associated with in his 15 years as a legislator — telephone calls, e-mails and personal contact. “And it was all positive. That never happens.”
Laverty says that at the next regular legislative session, in 2011, he'll introduce a bill to permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The time may be ripe.
Thirteen states have legalized medical marijuana. Maine became the latest last month, when voters approved it by a 59 percent majority. At least a dozen more states seem headed toward legalization in the near future. It was a full eight years ago that a University of Arkansas poll found 63 percent of Arkansans in favor of medical marijuana and 32 percent opposed. (The finding astounded, and was disputed by, a number of people, and seemed to go unnoticed by the legislature.) In 2004, drug-law reformers tried to put a medical-marijuana act on the general election ballot, but failed to obtain the required number of signatures. In the last couple of years, voters in Eureka Springs and Fayetteville have declared that enforcement of marijuana laws should be a low priority for law enforcement.
A few medical marijuana bills have been introduced in the legislature, but none ever got out of committee. Those bills weren't sponsored by legislators as well-entrenched as Laverty.
Medical marijuana is part of a larger issue, Laverty says, but it's the part that can be achieved most quickly. The larger issue is whether to decriminalize the use of marijuana generally as a way to curtail the explosive growth in the state prison population. Laverty also is pondering legislation that would entail the release from prison of large numbers of nonviolent offenders, through greater use of house arrest. New technology has improved devices, such as ankle bracelets, that keep law enforcement officers informed of offenders' whereabouts, Laverty says.
“When I first came to the legislature, we had about 6,300 prison inmates,” Laverty says. “Today, we're pushing 16,000. They're projecting 22,000 in 10 years.” The prison population is aging, too, which means it's more expensive. A few years back, Laverty saw a National Conference of State Legislatures report that said $21,000 to $26,000 a year was the cost of keeping an inmate in his 20s confined, and $53,000 to $57,000 a year the cost for an inmate in his 50s or 60s. Older inmates are more prone to health problems.
Laverty, who has three years left to serve in the legislature, said he's still studying what other states have done in this area. But in regard to medical marijuana, he's ready to go. He said he'd been at the bedside of too many cancer patients in pain not to want to relieve their suffering.
Most local law enforcement officers already say that arresting marijuana users isn't a high priority. It's impossible to know how many marijuana offenders are in the state prisons, because most drug offenders are charged under a blanket “controlled substance” statute that doesn't name a specific substance. Dina Tyler, a spokesman for the state Correction Department, said she doubts there are many people in prison for mere possession of marijuana. Possession of a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor, she said, and misdemeanants don't go to prison. But drug reformers note that a second offense of possessing marijuana, even a small amount, is a felony. They believe that sheriffs and police use this provision of the law to send up people who're considered troublemakers but who have no other charges against them.