It appears the Rice and Duck Capital of the World won’t be adding cannabis to its nickname anytime soon.
Residents of Stuttgart, including civic and business leaders, rose up in opposition in August when a medical marijuana dispensary asked state regulators for permission to move to the Southeast Arkansas town.
Greenlight Helena, a dispensary in Helena-West Helena, asked the state Medical Marijuana Commission for approval to move to a location on U.S. Highway 63, a stone’s throw from Mack’s Prairie Wings, the well-known 120,000-square-foot sporting goods store that caters to hunters. Commission Chair James Miller said at the board’s August meeting that he had become aware that people in Stuttgart would like to have time to send letters about the proposed move and the commission obliged. Miller did not say at the time whether he anticipated the letters would favor or oppose the move, but the answer became clear when responses began to roll in.
The commission and staff received more than 30 letters, including comments from Arkansas County Judge Thomas Best, Stuttgart Alderman David Leech, Riceland Foods President and CEO Jason Brancel, elected officials in the nearby town of Almyra, and many residents of Stuttgart.
None of the letters supported the move, commission spokesman Scott Hardin said.
Leech, like many residents, cited concerns about crime and the local economy. Leech said in his letter that Stuttgart has a hard time filling jobs as it is, especially those that require a commercial driver’s license in the trucking-heavy grain industry.
Leech, who led the city’s economic development efforts for five years, said the city’s need for labor is so bad that about 75% of the town’s workers drive in from out of town. One local manufacturer has decided to move some production to Mexico, he said.
Crime was also a concern of Leech’s and many of the residents who submitted letters to the commission. Many of the letters suggested that locating a dispensary in Stuttgart could make crime worse, though none of them made a direct connection about why that would be.
Leech said he believes some people need medical marijuana, like cancer patients, but said his community is already well-served by the dispensaries in Pine Bluff, less than 40 miles away.
“We don’t have the people for any more problems. Pine Bluff has the law enforcement to take care of it and they were serving our community anyway.” Leech said the local police department, like employers around the city, struggles to fill vacancies.
Leech said, “This is not a good match for ducks, rice or for our town.”
Arkansas County Judge Thomas Best also sent a letter to the commission opposing the dispensary’s relocation. Reached by phone at his office in DeWitt recently, Best told the Arkansas Times that a potential dispensary is “just something we don’t need.” Best said he believes medical marijuana can be helpful to some people, but said he also had concerns about its impact on local employment.
“If someone is able to get this, and they may need it, that’s going to nullify them driving any heavy equipment or anything that requires a [commercial driver’s license],” he said.
Brancel, the president and CEO of Riceland Foods, the second largest employer in Arkansas County, also cited existing problems in filling jobs in his opposition letter to the commission.
“I cannot express to you enough the difficulty we have filling our open positions in our manufacturing facilities in Stuttgart,” he wrote.
Brancel said there are many forces that hinder the Stuttgart workforce but said it was the belief of his and his leadership team that “a marijuana dispensary located in the shadow of our manufacturing operations in Stuttgart will place yet another burden on our efforts to find a ready workforce.”
Other decision-makers in Stuttgart have been silent on the issue. Stuttgart Mayor Norma Strabala, who did not submit a letter to the commission, said she had no comment when reached by phone. Bethany Hildebrand, the president and CEO of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce, said her organization had not taken a position because it has “members on both sides of the issue.”
The letters seemed to be effective, though. Ultimately, Greenlight Helena asked the commission to withdraw its request to move to Stuttgart.
“It appears that there are strong present objections from the populace and business lobby of the city of Stuttgart to locate a dispensary for the benefit of patients in and near Stuttgart,” Greenlight Helena’s attorney, Michael Goswami, said in his email to the commission. “The lack of support was a surprise to my client, and we are hopeful that Stuttgart will recognize that this was a wonderful opportunity to create jobs and tax revenue in Stuttgart as the Arkansas cannabis market continues to mature.”
Bill Paschall, executive director of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association, said his organization considers dispensary locations to be a community decision. Still, he pushed back on some of the arguments made against the industry. Paschall said his organization has not heard concerns from law enforcement around the state that cannabis businesses are contributing to crime. Employers had trouble recruiting workers for some positions before marijuana became legal in Arkansas, he said.
“I’m not one that buys that medical marijuana in Arkansas is having a contributing influence to the job market,” he said.
While Stuttgart residents took to writing letters to oppose the proposed dispensary, it’s not their only recourse. The state constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2016 to legalize medical marijuana allows cities and counties to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses in their communities.
Little Rock attorney David Couch, who wrote the amendment, said he put the provision into the amendment so that communities wouldn’t feel that cannabis businesses are being forced upon them.
The amendment allows for a referendum to be placed on the ballot in a county by collecting the signatures of 15% of the people who voted in the circuit clerk’s race in the most recent general election. Cities can also hold a referendum, with signatures of at least 15% of the people who voted for mayor in the most recent general election, if the city has a law in place that allows for initiatives and referendums.
Howard County, in Southwest Arkansas, is the only community to use the provision so far. After a resident gathered enough signatures, the measure to restrict cannabis businesses from opening within the county advanced to the ballot in November 2018. It passed with the majority in favor of prohibiting cannabis businesses.
The provision is referred to by the cannabis industry as “opting out.” A study by the cannabis website Leafly last year found, however, that community opt-outs might not accomplish what residents think. Rather than closing the gates to marijuana, the study suggests communities are keeping the cannabis trade on the streets rather than in regulated retail stores.
Leech, the Stuttgart alderman and former economic developer, said he was aware of the opt-out referendum option, but doesn’t think it would pass.
Even if Stuttgart were to pass an opt-out measure, it may be immaterial. Paschall said Greenlight Helena’s decision to withdraw its request is evidence that the state’s cannabis industry doesn’t want to locate in communities that don’t want it.
“It’s not good for business,” he said. “No one in the industry is trying to force themselves on a community.”