Arkansans will get to vote Nov. 8 on legalizing marijuana for adults in the state, passing judgment on a constitutional amendment that would create a new market built upon the existing medicinal cannabis industry voters authorized in 2016.
The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a ruling late Thursday that cleared the way for counting votes on the measure, which the court had provisionally approved to be printed on general election ballots. The justices reversed a State Board of Election Commissioners ruling rejecting the ballot title of the proposal, known as Issue 4.
The board’s objections centered on vagueness in the 900-word ballot title, including concerns about limits on THC, the ingredient that gives cannabis users their “high.”
The high court’s 5-2 opinion Thursday found the election board’s discretion in approving or rejecting ballot titles defies the state constitution. The court, led by Associate Justice Robin Wynne, who wrote the majority opinion, found that the title conveyed “an intelligible idea of the scope and import of the proposed amendment,” and noted that no ballot title would ever please all parties.
The decision cleared the way for Arkansans to have their say on a plan that would give the owners of eight cultivation licenses and 40 dispensary licenses in the medical marijuana system a foot in the door, or maybe both feet, in the new market, which could be three or four times bigger. About 80,000 Arkansans have medicinal marijuana cards, and in 2021 they spent about $265 million on 40,347 pounds of cannabis. At the end of last year, 37 dispensaries were operational.
The Supreme Court decision granted a request by an industry-backed group, Responsible Growth Arkansas, to certify the proposed amendment for the ballot. The group submitted about 190,000 voter signatures during the run-up to the ballot decision, some double the amount needed to attain a spot on the ballot.
"The people will decide whether to approve the proposed amendment in November," Wynne wrote in the opinion. In its literature, Responsible Growth Arkansas says the amendment will “authorize the possession, personal use and consumption of cannabis by adults 21 and over, as well as the cultivation and sale of cannabis by licensed commercial facilities.”
Steve Lancaster, the Little Rock lawyer representing the group, told Arkansas Business that his team appreciated the court’s “thoughtful decision, and we’re excited that the people are able to exercise their constitutional right to decide this measure.”
He added that the ruling was a “complete validation” of the group’s efforts, and that efforts were “moving on to November.”
The ruling invalidated a 2019 law that empowered the election board to certify ballot measures, altering a system in which the state attorney general reviewed proposals before petitions could be circulated. Two justices agreed that the panel didn't have the authority to reject the plan, but said Secretary of State John Thurston had been correct in finding the ballot title faulty.
Recreational marijuana is already legal in 19 states, The Associated Press reported, and legalization is on the ballot this fall in South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri and Maryland.
Responsible Growth Arkansas has raised more than $4 million in support of the Arkansas measure, mostly from existing cultivation companies and a few dispensaries. They will be in a messaging war for the next six weeks against a well-financed opposition led by the conservative Arkansas Family Council and a group called Safe and Secure Communities, which has pulled in more than $2 million, including $250,000 from its biggest donor, Mountaire Corp. CEO Ronald Cameron.
In a statement, Family Council President Jerry Cox called the recreational proposal “a recipe for disaster” that would prohibit criminal background checks for certain marijuana business owners and would block authorities from zoning cannabis businesses or restricting marijuana use.
Existing cultivators and dispensaries are guaranteed recreational licenses under the plan, which would also allow dispensaries to obtain licenses for new locations and restrict the number of dispensaries to 120 and cultivation hubs to 12. The 40 new dispensary licenses and three new dispensary licenses would be awarded by lottery.
Some legal cannabis supporters, including attorney David Couch, who wrote the medicinal marijuana amendment, are campaigning against the recreational proposal, saying it fails to open up the recreational market fairly to potential businesses.
“I’ve always called it a money grab,” Couch said. “It is horrible. It establishes a closed market for eight or less companies. No competition, and it kills the hemp market and gives these same eight companies total control over hemp and CBD,” the ingredient in cannabis that offers therapeutic relief without intoxicating users.
“Greed won out,” Couch concluded in a Twitter post. “It could have been done in a fair, responsible and equitable manner.”
Nevertheless, the issue may well be poised to pass. A recent Talk Business/Hendrix poll found support for the legalization plan at nearly 58%. The recreational program passed with 53% of the vote.