Columns » Jay Barth

The medical marijuana surprise



One proposal was lost in the flurry of petition-gathering this summer for initiatives ranging from ethics reform to casinos. Advocates for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act — which would make Arkansas the 18th state, and the first in the South, to legalize personal use of marijuana for the purposes of medical relief — got an early start, but have had little visibility over the past few months. While lacking the big money or the big names attached to other direct democracy initiatives this season, the group calling itself Arkansans for Compassionate Care was able first to turn in the necessary number of signatures to reach an extra 30-day "cure" period, and then submitted an additional 74,000 signatures last week. Given that the percentage of valid signatures to place the act on the ballot has been high from the get-go, it seems likely that medical marijuana initiative is on its way to the November ballot.

Just as surprising as the success of Arkansans for Compassionate Care in gaining signatures is the apparent openness of Arkansans to vote the measure into law in November. While limited polling on the issue has been done, a Talk Business-Hendrix College poll last month showed a slight plurality of likely voters supporting the measure. Indeed, aside from the failed ethics initiative that had overwhelming public support, the measure is the most popular of all those put forward by the legislature or pursued through the petition process this year.

Little money has been spent either in favor or in opposition to the measure. While a little national money may pop into the state to support the proposal or to oppose it, the major efforts on either side of the issue in the fall will be grassroots in nature — both by the Arkansans for Compassionate Care in support (perhaps less under the radar than to date) and by the Arkansas Family Council, which will use its church-based grassroots operation in opposition. While it's tempting to presume that the opposition has an advantage in this battle based on the Family Council's success in passing the Defense of Marriage Amendment in 2004 and Act 1 (the ban on foster care and adoption in homes with cohabitating adults) in 2008, the surprising success of the pro-medical- marijuana coalition to date should make us wary of such conventional wisdom.

Whether the measure is approved or not, turnout created by the issue could have ramifications for the partisan races elsewhere on the ballot. Specifically, based on what has happened with medical marijuana measures and pot decriminalization proposals in other states, there is evidence that the issue could draw to the polls voters whom Democrats traditionally rely upon but who typically turn out at lower levels than other groups.

The data from the Talk Business-Hendrix College poll provides additional evidence for this notion. In a year in which there is deep concern among Democratic partisans about turnout of their base because of the president's unpopularity in the state, the measure is favored by just over 60 percent of Democrats, with a similar percentage of Republicans opposing the measure. Moreover, the proposal draws the support of over 60 percent of those under 30 and 57 percent of African-Americans — two groups whose electoral participation is crucial if Democrats are to avoid historic losses in the state's legislative and congressional elections. Consider, for instance, the potential power of the measure to promote college student turnout in the hard-fought state Senate election between Democratic Rep. Linda Tyler and Republican Sen. Jason Rapert in Conway, a race that could well determine control of the state Senate in 2013.

In short, the Democratic Party of Arkansas would be well served by the Medical Marijuana Act's making the ballot. High-profile Democrats like Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel have voiced opposition to the proposal. But, they would be real winners if advocates of the act gain the resources and media attention to more fully publicize the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act as the voters drawn to the polls are quite likely to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot.

Ernest Dumas is on vacation.

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