While the race between Tom Cotton and Mark Pryor for the U.S. Senate is getting a lot of attention, at least one other race is bound to create a buzz. For the second time in two years, advocates of medical marijuana are gathering signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would legalize pot with a prescription.
According to Campaign Director Melissa Fults of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the petition circulated this year is largely the same as the one that made it to the ballot in 2012, a ballot initiative that failed by a vote of 48.56% for and 51.44% against.
She said while the petition closely mirrors 2012's proposal, there were a few changes.
The difference that is likely to catch many people's attention is what is now known as the hardship clause, which Fults said would allow individuals who live too far to receive deliveries of medical marijuana or have medical issues that prevent them from driving to grow up to three marijuana plants in the privacy of their own home for personal, medical uses. But she said such a provision in the law is not intended to just let people freely grow pot with no supervision.
"A health department representative can go to your house, ask to see your (medical marijuana) license, ask to see your grow room, to see that you are only growing the three mature plants you're qualified to grow," she said.
Another big difference in this year's version of the ballot initiative versus 2012 is the affordability clause, which Fults said would allow individuals prescribed medical marijuana to get it at a steep discount from the mandatory non-profit dispensaries that would be created as a result of the legislation.
The affordability clause, she said, would essentially allow those on a low income to obtain their prescription from their local dispensary at a reduced price. The difference would be covered by a fee all dispensaries in the state would have to pay to the Arkansas Department of Health that would amount to no more than two percent of the total sales of said dispensary, which would have to be a non-profit entity according to the language of the ballot initiative.
"So say you have three dispensaries in the upper end areas of Little Rock. They wouldn't likely have any low income (patients) come in," she said. "But you may have one in College Station, a dispensary with a lot of low income people. Those dispensaries with low income patients will make a report with (a list of) which low income patients came in. The health department will have a record of what they paid and the Health Department will then reimburse the dispensary."
Fults explained that any sales tax collected as a result of prescription marijuana sales would be used to fund any work the Arkansas Department of Health has to do as a result of the addition of medical marijuana to the list of prescribed controlled substances in Arkansas.
"It is all self-contained. The patients are the ones paying the sales tax and the patients' sales tax should go to the program," she said. "Anything over what they need will go to the Arkansas Umbilical Cord Bank and the DHS (Department of Human Services) for drug education."
Arkansans for Compassionate Care is not the only group attempting to get medical marijuana on the ballot. Arkansans for Responsible Medicine, a group that did not respond to request for comment, is also attempting to get medical marijuana on the ballot, which would allow physicians to write patients with certain medical conditions a prescription for marijuana at least once a year. The group's proposal does not allow for personal growth of marijuana and it also allows cities and counties to prohibit dispensaries.
Asked whether she viewed the other group's efforts as a threat, Fults said she did not, adding that she felt confident Arkansans for Compassionate Care would succeed in getting its petition on the ballot in November.
"Right now, we only have about 10,000 signatures. It's been at a standstill the last couple of months because of the weather. …At the end of April, we are going to have a Compassion Weekend across the state. There'll be a hard push for signatures. We have a very, very good chance for getting our signatures. We are about where we were in 2012."
As a result, she said there's a good chance the measure will get the votes it needs to gain passage, making Arkansas the first Southern state to pass some form of legalized marijuana, whether medical or recreational. Fults said the reason 2014 could be different is because of the amount of public education and support that has swelled online and elsewhere since 2012.
"I think why we'll do so much better this time is because of the amount of education that's out there this time. In 2012, we really didn't have a chance to do a lot of educating and there wasn't a lot of education out there. Since 2012, things have changed drastically. For example, Dr. Sanjay Gupta (chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine, and CNN's chief medical correspondent) — who was dead set against marijuana because of the lies our government has told — has done studies and now sees it as a medicine and has done a couple of documentaries (on the topic)."
There has not been much public opposition to the ballot initiative this year, likely due to the fact that the ballot initiative has yet to collect its more than 62,000 needed signatures by the July 7 deadline for a November vote. Once it gains a spot on the statewide ballots, anti-weed groups are likely to make their voices heard much like they did in 2012.
Fults said the changing landscape, both in the media and the public at large, makes her hopeful that the initiative will easily pass in the Fall.
"I think with these changes, I think we're a shoe in. I really do. I thought we would win last time, but I really truly believe we will win and win by a large margin this time."