ADVOCATE AGAINST MARIJUANA: Benton Police Captain Kevin Russell (right) is the newest appointee to the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission. Benton Police Department


Benton Police Captain
Kevin Russell is the newest appointee to the state Medical Marijuana Commission. He was appointed by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, president pro tempore of the Senate, who said he made the appointment in consultation with Sen. Jim Hendren, incoming Senate president. Russell replaces Dr. Carlos Roman on the board.

In an interview with the Arkansas Times, Russell said he’ll either be sworn in before the next meeting of the Commission on Jan. 9 or at the meeting itself. As a Benton police captain and 19-year veteran of the Benton Police Department, Russell said his law enforcement background and experience in “prevention and education” of drug use has helped prepare him to serve on the Commission.

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“I feel that a lot of the rules and regulations have already been established by the previous commission members, but … my understanding is [that] the last few things they have to do are dealing with transportation and security,” he said. “I feel that with my background … would be beneficial, potentially.”

As pointed out in a lengthy Twitter thread by Times columnist Autumn Tolbert, Russell helped form and chaired the Keep Arkansas Safe Coalition in January of 2016, which advocated against medical marijuana in Arkansas. Russell said he’s still involved with the Keep Arkansas Safe campaign, which actively posts on its Facebook page, and he said he has been the author of some of those posts, though he said he doesn’t remember the last time he did so.

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He is also a member of the larger group Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana, which paid him $1,003.63 in November 2016 for “Consulting/Social Media,” according to a Ballot Question Committee Financial Report filed on Dec. 8, 2016. When a reporter asked if he’s still involved with those social media efforts or with the group itself, Russell said he does still “have somewhat to do with it, although not near as much as I used to.” He said Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana is a “group of people who come from prevention backgrounds,” and he still works with the group doing “prevention talks” around the state and occasionally posting on its social media.

When asked how his continued involvement with these groups will affect his membership on the Commission, Russell said his focus is now on the safe and swift implementation of the law he actively tried to prevent.

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I come from a prevention background that’s just trying to educate people completely about the subject, not necessarily saying, ‘No, don’t do this,’ because that boat has sailed, it sailed in 2016,” he said. “We need to make sure the law gets instituted quickly and responsibly, but we also need to continue to educate people, especially our younger people, our teens, about the fact that it does have some dangers to it and it’s not harmless.”

Russell added that his prevention work also involves educating people about prescription drugs. He said he gives speeches on opioid use and overdoses and is also a naloxone instructor, which means he teaches others about the life-saving drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

In his prevention trainings, Russell said his angle is, and has always been, “that there are definite pitfalls and side effects to marijuana, and… there’s a lot of misinformation and miscommunication with people about the issue,” he said. “That’s kind of been my background in trying to make sure that people see both sides of the story.”

He also said that in these trainings, “I always preface [in] my talks that I do completely believe that there are medical components and derivatives of the marijuana plant that can be beneficial for different medical reasons,” he said. “I always add that, I do believe that.”

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Russell was also featured in a November 2017 news segment on KJNB TV in Northeast Arkansas on medical marijuana dispensaries experiencing delays. In the video and corresponding article, Russell was presented as opposing the use of medical marijuana as a tool to combat opioid overdoses and deaths, as it simply gives patients the option to “trade one bad habit for another.” When a reporter asked whether he still believes this to be true, Russell said the sound bite was “cut out of context” and he can’t remember exactly what he said, but he believes more research needs to be done on the effects of marijuana use for folks addicted to opioids.

“But the fact of the matter is, there’s mixed reviews and scientific studies that have been done on it, and I think that’s something that we don’t need to rush into, necessarily, because there is some literature on both sides of the issue,” he said. “We need to take [things] carefully because, I mean, in a lot of these cases, especially when you’re talking about people who are teenagers and young adults, and their brains are still forming, that seems to be the biggest issue with this having negative effects on their brain growth and function. That’s something that we’re still going to have to continue to study, we’re going to have to research and we’re going to have to depend on the researchers and doctors to help guide us on that.”

When asked if he is more supportive of the implementation of medical marijuana now that he’s on the state Commission, Russell said he’s unsure, but he wants to be involved in the safety of its rollout.

A lot of it depends, I’m not sure, because that’s one of the reasons for being on the commission,” he said. “I want to be a part of helping to make sure it’s implemented correctly. I’m not sure though, as far as how it’s going to be rolled out, if it’s going to be done in the right manner, and I guess, now that I’m on the commission, I need to start studying the rules and regulations a lot more.”