'JUST DON'T SIGN:' Sen. Cecile Bledsoe shares encourages Arkansans not to sign petitions legalizing recreational marijuana. Brian Chilson

At a press conference Thursday morning, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe and several conservative state and faith leaders warned Arkansans about the dangers of marijuana and implored voters not to sign petitions in favor of legalizing the drug.

Bledsoe began her comments by reminding attendees that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” saying that the potency of the drug has “changed since the 1970s” and putting an initiative on the November ballot to recreationally legalize it is “irresponsible and very poor public policy.” She also said the process of getting an amendment on the ballot has “been usurped by money” and that true, grassroots efforts of citizens gathering signatures to get laws changed is “hard to find.”

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“After getting that [recreational legalization] issue on the ballot, millions of dollars will be spent to convince the people of Arkansas that it’s a good thing,” Bledsoe said. “Newspaper ads, radio ads, television ads, social media — and without an infusion of money for the education of the voters as to the other side of this issue, the grassroots organizations of our citizens cannot get the message out. It’s too late, it’s too late, if we wait until it’s on the ballot.”

Bledsoe introduced her son, Dr. Greg Bledsoe, who is the state’s surgeon general and, according to a flyer that was available at the press conference, also a student in Brazilian jiu jitsu and an Eagle Scout.

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Dr. Bledsoe shared several concerns about marijuana, saying that states where recreational cannabis has been legalized have seen an increase in “psychiatric illnesses” — most of which are genetically based, he said — and that marijuana “not only exacerbates, but causes” depression, anxiety and schizophrenia to present in individuals who use the drug. He said his biggest concern is how marijuana use under the age of 25 has “been demonstrated to cause permanent cognitive impairment in young people.”

BAD FOR ARKANSANS: Dr. Greg Bledsoe, state surgeon general and son of Cecile Bledsoe, says marijuana is a gateway drug and a trigger for “psychiatric illnesses.”

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The surgeon general then said that “the other side will say this has all been discredited,” and added that he has “a lot of friends” on the other side.

“But my job as the surgeon general of the state is to tell the facts, and it’s to tell the people of Arkansas the truth about all sorts of public health issues, including marijuana,” Dr. Bledsoe said.

“When we look at the research that’s been presented nationally, the other side says it’s all been discredited,” Dr. Bledsoe continued. “And my question for the other side is: By who? And how? The fact of the matter is that it hasn’t been discredited, and a good question for those who say it’s been discredited is ‘Show us the research that discredits it,’ because it hasn’t been discredited.”

Dr. Bledsoe then reminded attendees that four years ago, when the medical marijuana amendments were on the ballot, opponents knew it would be a “stepping stone” to recreational use. He said the “big issue” driving the recreational legalization campaign and “the narrative that’s been pushed to the American people that this is safe, natural and harmless” is not politics or health care, but money.

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“There are people who are paying for the marketing aspect of this, who are pushing this, who are set to make obscene amounts of money off the backs of hardworking Arkansans around this state,” Dr. Bledsoe said. “And then after they make their money, the problems that are caused by marijuana are gonna be cleaned up, the pieces are going to be picked up, by parents, pastors, school teachers, law enforcement and health care workers, who are going to have to come in behind these marijuana companies and … clean up the mess that’s been caused in our state by the marijuana industry.”

Kirk Lane, the state drug director, spoke next, saying that Arkansans need to know that “our marijuana potency of our generation” was much lower in THC content, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that renders users “high.”

“It is clear that marijuana of our generation is not what we’re currently experiencing,” Lane said. “Don’t be pressured into signing the petition of for-profit petitioners working for for-profit marijuana companies. Basically, just don’t sign.”

Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, took the podium next, and he told attendees about the two recreational use amendments for which supporters are required to gather 89,151 registered voters’ signatures by July 3 in order to make the ballot in November. Each of the amendments would allow Arkansans to grow their own cannabis plants at home, and the Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment, which Cox said was “promoted” by organizer Mary Lou Berry, also has a “big component” that expunges the criminal records of people currently serving sentences for marijuana offenses.

“ If [the Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment] passes, Arkansas will have the least restrictive marijuana laws in the nation … because it allows people to possess an unlimited amount of marijuana,” Cox said. “There’s no limit on the number of farms that Arkansas could have. There’s no limit on the number of marijuana stores that Arkansas could have. And there’s no restriction on where it could be sold, so you could have it sold at a convenience store, if that measure passes.”

“We’re dealing with bad and worse when it comes to the two measures,” Cox concluded. “If either of these measures [pass], marijuana would be less regulated in Arkansas than alcohol.”

Brian Chilson
THC IS BAD: According to Toni Rose, co-founder of faith-based nonprofit An American Speaks.

Toni Rose, co-founder of faith-based Arkansas nonprofit An American Speaks, spoke next. Her brief comments focused primarily on the hazards of THC.

“This is about not marijuana, to shock everybody,” Rose said. “This is about THC. That’s what’s in the leaf. Nobody cares about the leaf. It’s the THC that’s in the leaf. And by legalizing THC, you are legalizing all of the potencies and all of the forms of THC, for all of our people.”

In a moment reminiscent of the scene in “Forrest Gump” when Bubba shares all the ways one can eat shrimp, Rose told attendees: “You’re gonna get a dab that could be 99 percent pure THC; you could get a 20 percent THC cigarette from the plant; you can get honeycomb wax; you can get shatter; you can get hashish; you can get all forms of THCs, and that’s what you’re gonna be voting for, not just rolling up marijuana in a paper.”

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Ken Carney, lead pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Hot Springs, said his son used marijuana as a teenager, which led to harder drug use and pain for his family.

“I’m gonna say something right now that everyone needs to hear and everyone needs to remember, don’t ever forget this: The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too strong to be broken,” Carney said.

Carney’s voice wavered with emotion as he described finally getting a call from his son when he was ready to come home and return from the “bad path” he was on.

“If we approve this recreational marijuana, we’re putting tens of thousands of individuals and families on a path of pain and destruction, because this is a gateway drug,” Carney added.