An “unusual alliance” across the political spectrum and doubts about business details of a new recreational market helped doom a marijuana legalization amendment last month, campaign veterans and observers say.
Three weeks after Arkansans voted 56.3% against the amendment out of 900,000 ballots cast, all the players said they expected the issue to rise again, probably as early as 2024.
The margin surprised even some opponents of the amendment after early polling showed support. But voters found fault with the proposal itself, which was backed with nearly $5 million from the state’s medical marijuana industry.
One provision that drew scrutiny would have granted matching recreational licenses to all existing medicinal growers and outlets. Strong opposition from the state’s conservative political leaders also played a role.
Conway dispensary leader Robbin Rahman said Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ surge to the governorship brought out conservative voters, and that Arkansas’ traditionally low turnout in midterm elections played a part.
The amendment was one of four on the Arkansas ballot, and all four went down to defeat. (See sidebar.) But the marijuana legalization proposal drew the most attention and money, with an industry-fueled coalition called Responsible Growth Arkansas spending nearly $5 million to support it.
“The numbers tightened as the election drew near,” said University of Arkansas political scientist Karen Sebold, who said the anti-legalization coalition had advantages beyond money. Eventually, they had enough cash to push those ‘on the fence’” against the amendment, Sebold said.
Opponents included Mountaire Corp. CEO Ron Cameron, Jerry Cox of the Arkansas Family Council, Republican political leaders including Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and even legalization supporters like attorney David Couch, author of the medical cannabis amendment that prevailed with about 53% of the vote in 2016.
“There was an unusual alliance of conservatives, liberals and libertarians against it,” Sebold said. “Many liberals objected to ... the potential for a monopoly of current license holders,” even though polling suggested most voters were open to legalization in theory.
Conservatives were concerned about crime, and libertarians objected to “stiff penalties for growing your own plants,” the professor said.
Couch called the amendment “arrogantly written” by the medicinal cannabis industry. “I was surprised at how soundly it was defeated,” he said, “but I was not surprised that it lost.” He said 30% of Arkansans oppose legalization altogether, and that other voters, including himself, saw the automatic licenses as greedy.
Rahman, an attorney who runs Harvest Cannabis Dispensary in Conway, disagreed. “Issue 4 was the victim of factors that could not be detected” in polls, including traditionally low turnouts in midterm elections.
Polls also didn’t account for Sanders’ power to bring out conservative voters unlikely to support legalization.
“Another important factor,” Rahman said, “was the vocal and quite aggressive opposition … from the state’s leaders, such as Governor Hutchinson, virtually all other establishment Republican religious leaders and lawmakers, plus many in the business community.”
Couch said Responsible Growth may have spent too much money. Its outlay of $4.85 million more than doubled the fundraising of the biggest opposing group, Cameron’s Safe & Secure Communities, which raised just over $2 million. “Arkansas people thought, wait ... maybe they’re just trying to buy something.”
TV and radio ads focused on the tax money and jobs recreational marijuana would produce, and emphasized new funding for law enforcement.
Former state lawmaker Eddie Armstrong, who directed the Responsible Growth initiative, told Arkansas Business that the loss was in some ways “unfortunate.”
“Some that wanted to see it legalized really wished that expungement [of marijuana-related criminal records] had been part of it,” he said.
He also said many voters were swayed by “scare tactics in the media” and misinformation about the advantages medicinal cannabis companies would gain. “From the campaign perspective, we did exactly what we were supposed to do, and that was to carry a message of a better Arkansas moving forward.”
He, Couch and Sebold all said the issue isn’t going away. “I still think opportunities are ahead of us, and this gives us a chance to really consider all the components and what we can and cannot work with to gain some more alliances before the inevitable happens, whether its legalization or decriminalization federally, or another opportunity to make a choice two years from now,” Armstrong said.
Four Strikes, All Out
The recreational marijuana amendment placed on the ballot by a voter signature drive failed along with three amendment proposals referred by the Arkansas Legislature, a relatively rare sweep of defeats for multiple ballot issues in Arkansas. Here’s a breakdown:
Issue 2: 59% Against — 41% For
Lawmakers are allowed to refer up to three constitutional amendments to voters in each general election, and one of this year’s would have made citizen-initiated amendments harder to pass, raising the threshold for success from a simple majority to 60%.
That amendment was ballot Issue 2, which failed by 18 percentage points, and that wasn’t even the voters’ sharpest rebuke.
Issue 1: 61% Against — 39% For
Voters rejected a plan to let lawmakers call themselves into special session, a privilege reserved for the governor under current law, by 22 percentage points.
Issue 3: 50.4% Against — 49.6% For
The only truly close vote was on enshrining individual religious freedom into the state Constitution, which fell short by only about 7,500 votes among nearly 875,000 cast.