Columns » Jay Barth

Marijuana proposals: more is less


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Polling this week reiterates that Arkansans are ready for the medical use of marijuana to become public policy here. A Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College survey shows a comfortable lead (58 percent to 34 percent) for such a measure. The problem for advocates for allowing patients' use of marijuana to offset certain debilitating medical conditions is that two different proposals may well be headed to this year's ballot. And, because ballot measures rely upon voters' knowledge in casting votes, less is generally more.

Support for a ballot measure on the subject reaches across demographics, politics and geography. Certain groups of voters — Democrats, those under 45, Central Arkansas voters and African-American voters — are especially supportive of the measure. Still, the concept leads among all groups of Arkansas voters with one exception. Among the state's Republican voters, it is tied. In short, medical marijuana is not a polarizing issue that divides groups of Arkansans. Normally, that would ensure success at the polls. (It is noteworthy that a chunk of voters seems concerned about making laws at the ballot box at all; a survey last September showed an even larger portion of Arkansans — 84 percent — agree that adults should be allowed to use physician-prescribed marijuana.)

This survey asked about the general notion of a medical marijuana ballot measure describing the creation of dispensaries to distribute the regulated marijuana. In reality, two different measures are moving toward the fall ballot. They differ in two key respects. First, one is a constitutional amendment and the other an initiated act. Second, the initiative looks very much like a 2012 measure that lost a very close vote and includes a "grow your own" provision (up to 10 plants) for those living over 20 miles from a "cannabis care center" while the constitutional amendment lacks that component. Two weeks ago, Melissa Fults of East End, the dairy goat farmer/legislative candidate who has overseen a mostly grassroots operation to gain the necessary signatures for the initiated act, turned in what she claims will be a sufficient number of signatures even after a portion, as always, is found to be invalid. The constitutional amendment, promoted by ballot measure entrepreneur David Couch of Little Rock and employing an approach focused on paid signature collectors, appears on track to make the ballot when signatures are turned in later this month.

One thing is fairly clear: If both measures are on the ballot, the likelihood of either passing is reduced significantly. First, national marijuana groups hoping to make inroads on the issue in the South will have to make a choice: Do they support the measure that polls a bit better (the constitutional amendment) or do they support the initiative that is stronger in advancing access to marijuana across the state? Second, to differentiate themselves to voters, each pro-medical marijuana campaign would have to point out the flaws in the other proposal. Add this opposition to the campaigns of national and state groups, like the Arkansas Family Council, concerned about easier access to marijuana, and majority support on either measure begins to melt.

Moreover, having two measures on the ballot would inherently create confusion as voters supportive of the concept have to calculate whether to vote for both measures or only one and, if so, which one. In addition, all this will take place in the context of a presidential election with large numbers of irregular voters showing up to vote in the race at the top of the ticket and suddenly asked to make a decision between two issues on the same topic. The safer choice is to say "no" to both. (By the way, things get legally wiggy if the initiative were to pass with a larger number of votes than the constitutional amendment. It is clear if two constitutional amendments or two initiatives on the same subject both pass the voters' muster, the one with the larger number of votes is enacted. While logic would suggest that a constitutional amendment would be controlling, this is an unasked legal question and, because both measures would have passed at the same moment, it's less clear than at first blush.)

Advocates of medical marijuana in Arkansas have been at odds on the correct strategy moving forward since the close vote in 2012. Those divisions prevented a measure from getting to the ballot at all in 2014 and create renewed challenges in 2016. The winners may well be medical marijuana's significantly outnumbered opponents.


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