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Prospect of Full Marijuana Legalization Stirs PassionsLock Icon

7 min read

Both the supporters and the opponents of legalizing recreational marijuana in Arkansas say they’re thinking of the children.

Long-term cannabis use can permanently alter the developing brains of adolescents and young adults, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

That’s a concern for state Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, one of the most visible foes of the effort to legalize cannabis for recreational or adult use. When young people before the age of 25 use marijuana consistently, “once or twice a week, then it does something to the brain,” she said.

“In a sense it delays their cognitive development, and if they should stop using marijuana after a certain period of time, that cognitive development does not go back up to the baseline,” Bledsoe told Arkansas Business.

“What about the children?” Melissa Fults of Hensley, one of the faces behind the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment, asked rhetorically, referring to foes’ arguments that marijuana use harms developing brains. “If we have it recreational, and we have it in the dispensaries, and we have it affordable, will we ever completely eliminate the black market? No. I mean, we know we won’t,” Fults said.

“But can we make it a smaller amount? Yes. And to me, our amendment will protect the children better because it will be harder to get. Because right now, they can go to any street corner and buy it and it’s much more affordable than going to a dispensary, so we want to protect the children.”

Two Amendments Proposed

Two separate groups are working to place on the Nov. 3 general election ballot amendments to the Arkansas Constitution that would legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults 21 and older.

Fults, the executive director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Education Group, is leading one effort. The DPEG has formed a committee, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, to get its amendment on the ballot.

A second group, Arkansas True Grass, is sponsoring a competing proposal, the Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2020. Both groups are busy trying to gather enough signatures to place their amendments before voters.

Both amendments would establish a framework under which the state would regulate recreational — also called “adult use” — marijuana, but the Arkansas True Grass proposal provides for less strict regulation.

Fults said regulation is essential. “I do want it regulated. I want it tested. I want to make sure that anything anybody gets is safe,” Fults said. “I want it accessible.”

In addition, the True Grass proposal calls for the expungement of the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes. The DPEG had also initially filed an amendment calling for expungement of marijuana convictions, but has since dropped that effort. (For a fuller comparison of the two amendments, see A Tale of Two Amendments.)

The arguments for and against legalizing marijuana for adult use generate strong emotions, as did the arguments for medical marijuana in Arkansas.

In an interview earlier this month with Arkansas Business, Fults, a veteran of medical marijuana campaigns, traced her support for medical cannabis to April 2011 and to her son’s use of opioids, stemming from a couple of car accidents.

“The doctors told him they [opioids] were killing him,” Fults said, and one suggested he use marijuana instead. That’s when she began working on behalf of medical marijuana.

Fults’ commitment to getting recreational-use cannabis on the ballot began in February 2019, when a legislative effort to increase the number of medical conditions covered under the medical marijuana amendment failed. The House Rules Committee refused to consider the proposal.

Fults was one of the witnesses who testified for the bill, but Dr. Nate Smith, secretary of the state Health Department, and state Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe, son of the state senator, testified against the proposal and told the committee that Gov. Asa Hutchinson also opposed it.

After the committee meeting, Fults said, “I swore I’d never fight for recreational. But the state has left us no alternative.”

In an interview earlier this month, Fults told Arkansas Business the medical marijuana amendment “that got passed left far too many patients behind, far too many. We tried to get the Legislature to add the conditions, and they wouldn’t even give us a motion for a do-pass, much less pass it.

“We were told that the governor had no intentions of the Health Department or the Legislature adding any other conditions so I thought, ‘OK, well, I’ll see you in November 2020.’”

There were other reasons to campaign for recreational marijuana, Fults said, including “the fact that someone’s life can be destroyed for something as simple as having a bag of marijuana, which is far safer than alcohol or any of these pills.” That led her group to propose a separate criminal expungement amendment that has since been withdrawn.

“Since we don’t have the funding that we were hoping to have, we had to make a harsh decision” to focus on gathering signatures for recreational marijuana, Fults said. The Drug Policy Education Group hopes that if recreational cannabis wins voter approval, it can focus on criminal record expungement efforts.

Fults also cited the slow rollout of medical marijuana dispensaries in Arkansas as helping propel her group’s efforts, saying accessibility was an issue. “We still have patients that are having to drive more than two hours one way to get their medicine.”

‘It’s Not Healthy’

But Sen. Bledsoe thinks many people don’t understand that the marijuana in production today is far more potent than that in use during the 1960s and 1970s. “This push for thinking that marijuana is harmless has been going on for decades,” she said. “I’m just concerned that people are not aware of the danger that is coming.”

Her son, Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe, shares those concerns about marijuana. “It’s not healthy,” he said. “My job as the surgeon general for the state of Arkansas is to tell the truth when it comes to health issues that are going to be impacting the citizens of Arkansas,” he told Arkansas Business.

He cited “deep-pocketed corporations and individuals who are not telling the truth, who are promoting a narrative that is inaccurate, and they’re telling Arkansans and they’re telling other people around the country that marijuana is harmless and it’s safe and it could possibly even be beneficial.

“And that’s not in keeping with what the data shows.”

Fults and Arkansas True Grass say there are no deep pockets funding their efforts. Fults said that DPEG is relying on $125,000 left to it by an estate.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce opposes legalizing recreational marijuana. “We think it would create a very difficult environment for employers to be able to maintain drug-free and safe workplaces,” said Randy Zook, the president and CEO of the state chamber. “It’s difficult enough with medical marijuana, but with recreational, all bets are off.” He cited in particular the problems it would present for the manufacturing, construction and transportation industries.

As for her son, Fults said, he moved off opioids to cannabis and now is drug-free. But “I don’t think he ever would have been able to survive without the marijuana.”

A Tale of Two Amendments

The Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment would:

► Place the regulation of adult-use marijuana under the authority of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

► Authorize the ABC to issue licenses for commercial businesses to cultivate, process and sell cannabis to adults for personal use.

► Authorize at least one seller per county and 30 per congressional district.

► Authorize one commercial cultivator per 250,000 residents.

► Award dispensary and cultivation licenses by lottery.

► Authorize adults to possess up to 4 ounces of cannabis flower, 2 ounces of cannabis concentrate, edible products containing cannabis with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) of 200 mg or less and to cultivate up to six cannabis seedlings and six cannabis flowering plants for personal use.

The Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment of 2020 would:

► Place the regulation of recreational marijuana under the authority of the Arkansas Agriculture Department and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

► Authorize the Agriculture Department to issue two types of licenses, a Class A license not exceeding $250 annually and permitting the possession, cultivation, transport and sale of recreational marijuana plants and seeds, and a Class B license not exceeding $500 annually and permitting possession, cultivation, production, transport and sale of recreational marijuana plants and seeds and the production and sale of products from the plant.

► Authorize adults to cultivate, possess, purchase and transport up to 12 marijuana plants and an unlimited quantity of seeds out of public view.

► Permit the purchase of up to 4 ounces of smokeable or vaporizable marijuana a day.

► Permit the possession of an unlimited quantity of marijuana products out of public view.

► Permit the release from prison of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes and expungement of their records.

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