Marijuana amendment organizer submits signatures, says it’s likely more needed

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 208 views 

Supporters of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment submitted an estimated 106,268 signatures on 17,819 pages Friday, but the sponsor believes the group will have to collect more signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Attorney David Couch said he expects about 73% of the signatures to be valid, which would leave the amendment short of the 84,859 signatures by registered voters needed to qualify. Friday was the deadline for voter-led groups to submit the required number of signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Chris Powell, spokesperson with the secretary of state’s office, said 60 temporary workers along with full-time staff members will have 30 days to verify the signatures one by one against a database. Efforts that fall short of collecting the required number then have a 30-day “cure period” to collect more signatures.

Couch said his group, which has used mostly paid canvassers, will easily collect enough signatures during the cure period and may already have enough signatures now. He said he withheld thousands of signatures so as not to qualify with a small amount that could be challenged and disqualified.

“Say it’s 85,000 signatures that you need. If I’d have qualified with 85,001 … and somebody challenged it and knocked three of my signatures off, then I would have been below the minimum that I needed,” he said.

The amendment authorizes the state to create up to 40 for-profit dispensaries and eight cultivation facilities, with the Department of Health maintaining a patient database to regulate who receives the drug, and how much. The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Commission would inspect the dispensaries and cultivation facilities. Sales tax revenues would cover the cost of regulation. Excess funds would be deposited into the state’s general revenue funds and would fund workforce skills training.

Couch said the effort has been supported mainly by two donors, the Bevans family, which owns Lake Liquor of Maumelle, and Cheney Pruett of Texarkana. He said the two each have contributed about $108,000.

An initiated act that would legalize medical marijuana, sponsored by Arkansans for Compassionate Care, qualified for the ballot Thursday. The two measures conceivably could both qualify.

The two differ in that Arkansans for Compassionate Care’s version would be an initiated act with the force of law, while Couch’s group is pushing a constitutional amendment, a higher legal threshold. Both would set up dispensaries where people could obtain medical marijuana, but Arkansans for Compassionate Care’s dispensaries would be run by non-profits and would include a provision allowing people to grow their own marijuana if they live too far from a dispensary. Couch’s version also lists only 14 ailments that would qualify for use, while Arkansans for Compassionate Care’s version lists about 50.

A proposal to legalize medical marijuana narrowly was rejected by voters in 2012. A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College Poll conducted June 21 found that 58% of respondents support the idea.

Couch said polls have shown broad support for medical marijuana. However, he said Arkansans for Compassionate Care’s version polls at 44-47% in his internal polls because of the grow-your-own provision. He said the excess marijuana grown by individuals would be difficult to regulate and would be diverted to the black market.

Melissa Fults, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said criticism of the grow-your-own provision is misleading. She said estimates indicate less than 2% of people qualifying for medical marijuana under their initiated act would be eligible to grow plants. And those who do, Fults said, are closely monitored by the Arkansas Department of Health.