David Couch wrote the amendment that voters approved to legalize medical marijuana in Arkansas in 2016, but he opposed the recent effort to legalize recreational marijuana, even aligning himself with anti-marijuana conservative stalwart Jerry Cox. We caught up with Couch to get his thoughts on the election, why he thinks the amendment failed and the prospects for a recreational marijuana amendment in the future.
What was your reaction to the outcome of the election?
I’m not surprised. There are 30% of the people who are not in favor of legalization of marijuana in Arkansas under any circumstances and Issue 4 was written in such a manner that the 30% of the remaining 70% had a very good excuse not to vote for it. It really established a closed market for the industry and really addressed none of the social issues that it should have addressed.
Do you think that was a rejection of recreational marijuana or a rejection of this particular amendment? Why?
It was 100% a rejection of this particular amendment. I believe that substantially more than 50% of the people, probably near 60% of the people, would vote for recreational marijuana if done in a fair and responsible manner. The numbers are there.
Why was it important to you to oppose this measure rather than support it even if it’s imperfect in your mind?
Because no policy is better than a bad policy and this is a policy that could not have been fixed very easily, if at all, if it passed. It was my opinion that it was better that it not pass and let’s work on one that everybody could get around in the future.
What were your thoughts about aligning yourself with Jerry Cox on this particular issue?
I’ve worked with Jerry in the past on other issues such as tort reform. I have no problem working with people that I generally disagree with if I agree with them on a particular issue. I think that’s what we all should do. We should work together when we can and oppose each other when we need to do that as well.
What about this amendment do you think was a turnoff to people who are generally supportive of recreational marijuana?
I think the number one issue was, for lack of a better way to describe it, the greed of industry. The fact that there were really no new cultivators and the fact that the existing dispensaries got another free license, I think was the killer. And the other thing that really bothered me was, either through poor drafting or intentionality, the cannibalization of the hemp market. I think those were the three things that really turned it. And the fourth issue would have been that there was no reason they shouldn’t have forgiven past offenses or at least provided a pathway to do so.
Do you have any hope that something positive in terms of cannabis reform can happen through the state legislature?
No. They are not in favor of it. If they did anything at all, it would be as some sort of attempt to try to ward off a good proposal in 2024. I don’t think anything good will come out of the General Assembly. You’ve got 17% Democrats in each house.
Do you envision any more changes to the petitioning process?
Yeah, I do think they’ll do something. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down some South Dakota laws that were very similar, if not identical, to some of the laws that the General Assembly has passed lately. They may try to address that specifically. . . I don’t know what they’re going to do with respect to ballot titles. It was the Attorney General’s purview to review those and approve those in the past. They took that away from the Attorney General and gave it to the Board of Election Commissioners and, not a surprise to me, the state Supreme Court declared the Board of Election Commissioners’ authority in that regard to be unconstitutional. That was the correct decision. There’s no process now by which a ballot title is vetted by any public official. I really don’t think it needs to be but that’s the one area that I think they’ll try to do some sort of reform on.
How can you mend fences with the existing medical marijuana industry to work together going forward?
I didn’t take it personally. I worked with Jerry cox. I can work with anybody. I really believe you could, with a fair amendment, spend less than half the money they spent on this one, and you could hit 60% in 2024. It’s a presidential election year, turnout is bigger, progressive turnout is substantially larger.
Do you think we’ll see a recreational marijuana amendment on the ballot in 2024? Will you be involved in that effort?
The answer to that is yes and the way I’ll be involved is in the way anyone wants me to be involved. I did medical marijuana pro bono because I just thought it should be done. This is a passion for me. . . If there were 1,000 people in Arkansas that will dedicate themselves to collecting 90 signatures each, then you’re on the ballot. You wouldn’t have to spend the $2 million that the recreational people spent collecting signatures. Start soon. Start now. Don’t wait.
Education: Newport High School, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law
Family: I’m not married. I have two children, Justin (31) who lives in Rogers and Claire (4) who still lives at home. “Yep, 31 and 4, no typo,” Couch said.
Twitter: I grew up reading three or four newspapers a day and Twitter is now my newspaper.
Favorite current TV show: “Yellowstone”
Favorite movie: I love movies. Too difficult of a choice, but I will say that I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” several times during the holidays.
Favorite politician: Huey Long
Do you have a medical marijuana card?: I do not have a card. Fortunately, I do not have a qualifying condition.