A group that failed to get a recreational marijuana amendment on the ballot four years ago and sued the attorney general over procedural issues hopes to give Arkansas voters a chance to legalize recreational marijuana next year.
Arkansas True Grass, a group of marijuana advocates and volunteers, is gathering signatures for a constitutional amendment that would allow Arkansans aged 21 and over to purchase up to four ounces of marijuana a day and grow up to 12 plants of their own. The group needs 89,151 verified signatures to make the November 2022 ballot. The deadline to submit petitions is July 8, 2022.
Known as The Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2022, the measure would permit marijuana for recreational use and would not require users to register with the state or obtain a card to make purchases. The amendment would not make any changes to the state medical marijuana program, which voters passed in 2016.
The new measure would also expand the number of businesses allowed to sell marijuana. The amendment allows for an unlimited number of business licenses, which spokeswoman Briana Boling said would be “affordable” and would be administered by the state Department of Agriculture. Under the state’s medical marijuana program, the Medical Marijuana Commission licenses dispensaries and cultivators, while the Alcoholic Beverage Control division regulates those businesses. The state Department of Health issues cards to qualified patients.
The new program would also be taxed differently than medical marijuana. Under the amendment, recreational marijuana would be subject to the existing sales tax, an additional 8% excise tax and a local sales tax of 5%. Medical marijuana purchases would not face any new taxes under the amendment.
While the amendment would not change the framework of the state medical marijuana program, it would increase competition and drive down prices, Boling said.
“What we have right now in Arkansas isn’t good for patients,” Boling said. “It’s just not. And the people that really need it can’t afford it, can’t get it. Can’t even afford to see the doctor to get it. That’s what needs to change.”
The Arkansas True Grass proposal would also expunge convictions for some marijuana offenses. Under the amendment, anyone incarcerated or serving parole or probation for a violation of the Arkansas Uniformed Controlled Substances Act and whose current and only conviction is for a marijuana-related offense would be released. All criminal records of such convictions before the passage of the amendment would be expunged.
“We want to free the people and the plant,” Boling said. “We don’t think that anybody should be arrested over a plant that’s proven to be safer than alcohol and tobacco.”
Arkansas True Grass tried to get a recreational marijuana amendment on the ballot in 2016 and 2020. The group struggled, during its 2016 attempt, to get ballot language approved by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who was required by state law at the time to approve ballot titles before petitioners could begin gathering signatures. Rutledge ultimately approved the ballot title two months before the election, but the group did not have enough time to gather the necessary signatures, Boling said.
The organization sued Rutledge over the matter in 2019 and a new state law passed that year changed the requirements for getting a measure on the ballot. The new law removed the need for the attorney general to approve ballot titles and, instead, required ballot titles only to be filed with the Secretary of State’s office. If ballot titles receive enough signatures, they are approved or rejected by the Board of Election Commissioners.
David Couch, the Little Rock attorney who helped draft marijuana amendments that made the ballot in 2012 and 2016, is not optimistic about Arkansas True Grass’ chances.
“I don’t think they have a chance in hell of getting on the ballot, but anybody can file anything nowadays,” Couch said.
Couch, who said he is not currently working on a marijuana measure for 2022, said the change in the process from getting “free legal advice” from the attorney general to gathering signatures before approval makes it difficult to have a successful measure.
The petition process can also be expensive. Couch estimated it would take approximately $750,000 to pay canvassers to get enough signatures to make the ballot before funding a campaign to support the measure. Arkansas True Grass has raised $13,573.91 and spent $10,787.29, according to the organization’s most recent filing with the Arkansas Ethics Commission in September. The group has $2,786.62 on-hand.
In 2012, Arkansans voted on a medical marijuana amendment that got 48.56% and failed by about 30,000 votes. Four years later, voters approved the current medical marijuana law with 53.11% voting in favor.
At least one other effort to legalize marijuana for adult use, likely with significant financial backing, is expected to be announced later this year. Former state Rep. Eddie Armstrong, filed on Oct. 15 a statement of organization to advocate for a ballot initiative for marijuana legalization, but the actual amendment hasn’t been filed with the secretary of state yet. Armstrong promised more information in the coming weeks.
The acceptance of marijuana has increased significantly and the right recreational amendment can pass in Arkansas, Couch said. Since the 2016 amendment passed, Arkansas has opened 37 dispensaries throughout the state and has more than 79,000 qualified patients.
“Recreational marijuana will pass in Arkansas with the right regulatory and tax structure involved,” Couch said.
A successful measure would increase the number of cultivators and dispensaries and allocate dispensaries by using a population-based formula like the one the state uses to allocate licenses for liquor stores, Couch said. The measure should also permit cooperative “micro-cultivators” in each county rather than home grows. A successful measure would also expunge marijuana-related convictions and would tax recreational marijuana while eliminating taxes on medical marijuana, according to Couch.
The time is right to pass a recreational marijuana amendment, Couch said. Statewide referendums only need to surpass 50% of the votes cast to pass, but that could change. The 2022 ballot will include a question referred by the state legislature on whether statewide referendums should require a 60% majority to pass. Regardless of whether that question passes in 2022, any measures on the 2022 ballot will only need to exceed 50% to pass, but next year could be the last time that is the case.
“If you are going to do something in Arkansas, you need to do it now,” Couch said.
If voters approve a recreational marijuana amendment, Arkansas would become the second state in the South and the first among its neighbors to legalize marijuana for recreational (or adult-use) purposes. Virginia legislators legalized recreational marijuana earlier this year, but the law does not take effect until 2024, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adults, but Illinois is the closest state to Arkansas to take such a step. Arkansas is among 37 states (and the District of Columbia) that have approved marijuana for medicinal purposes. Arkansas’s neighboring states of Oklahoma, Missouri and Louisiana have approved marijuana for some form of medicinal use.
Boling is optimistic about Arkansas True Grass’ chances of making the ballot and said most people she encounters are supportive. The group recently collected more than 300 signatures at the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair in Fort Smith and at the Main Street Food Truck Festival in Little Rock. The group has about 10 volunteers and about 70 supportive businesses that are collecting signatures.
“We’re all volunteers,” Boling said. “Nobody gets paid for anything. We’re just a grassroots legalization group. We just want to see Arkansas green.”