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What’s Next for Cannabis (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

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This is a pivotal week for marijuana. Voters in five states including Arkansas will go to the polls Tuesday to consider making recreational cannabis legal.

Complicating the question for Arkansans is how the proposed constitutional amendment grants the existing medical marijuana industry immediate access to a lucrative new market.

But legalization is a popular idea. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already have it on the books, and polls in Arkansas have shown enthusiasm for it.

So what happens Tuesday? I won’t make a prediction here, except that the vote is likely to be close — perhaps the closest of the night. Instead, here’s why Issue 4 passes or fails, and what comes next.

Pass: Voters narrowly approve Issue 4. Support for recreational marijuana waned as voters learned more about the amendment, but more than $12 million in spending by the existing medical cannabis industry — which gets in on the ground floor of the new recreational market — mitigated the trend. 

Arguments that tax proceeds will provide extra money for police and that the industry will create “thousands” of new jobs also resonate. And roughly three-and-a-half years of medical marijuana sales have made the prospect of recreational use palatable to most Arkansans.

Another likely factor: The prospect of the passage of Issue 2, which would require a 60% supermajority on future ballot proposals to change the state Constitution. Legalization superfans, considering a higher bar to pass recreational cannabis in 2024, decide it’s now or never.

What’s next: The amendment takes effect Nov. 18. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board must issue recreational cultivation and dispensary licenses to existing medical cannabis businesses by March 7, and those businesses can begin selling products the very next day.

The ABC must also issue licenses to new recreational dispensaries and cultivators via lottery. The deadline to do so for dispensaries is July 5. The deadline for cultivators is Nov. 8, 2023.

Meanwhile, some Arkansas counties and municipalities will begin debating whether they’ll allow non-medical marijuana sales. Under the amendment, they’ll be able to hold local elections to decide.

Fail: Voters narrowly reject Issue 4. Support for recreational marijuana waned as voters learned more about the amendment, and, amazingly, more than $12 million in spending by the existing medical cannabis industry couldn’t overcome the negatives. Chief among them is that, yes, this is a cash grab by the existing industry, one without even the courtesy of doing something for Arkansans convicted of minor marijuana possession charges.

Another factor: Despite allowing medical marijuana sales, Arkansans remain uncomfortable legalizing a federally prohibited drug for recreational purposes. And, when it comes to licensing and overseeing the industry, Arkansas’ track record isn’t great, as Arkansas Business showed in a cover story last week. An FBI investigation and allegations of bribery and dysfunction in licensing and oversight don’t argue for expansion.

What’s next: David Couch, the architect of Arkansas’ medical marijuana law, opposes Issue 4. He has his own ideas for a recreational cannabis law and is looking to 2024.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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