Editor’s note: Story updated to include reaction from Arkansans for Compassionate Care, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Conner Eldridge.
The Arkansas Supreme Court in a 5-2 opinion has disqualified the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act – Issue 7 – from the November ballot, with the majority opinion saying the act sponsors “failed to meet the constitutional requirements” related to the signature gathering process.
The opinion was issued Thursday morning (Oct. 27).
Prior to Thursday, voters in November were set to decide on two medical marijuana proposals. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment (Issue 6) would change the Constitution to allow for-profit dispensaries to provide marijuana to qualifying patients. The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act – now disqualified – would use non-profit dispensaries and, unlike the proposed amendment, allow patients living at least 20 miles from a dispensary to grow their own plants.
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment recently survived an Arkansas Supreme Court challenge. Thursday’s ruling that disqualified Issue 7 was with the case of Kara Benca v. Secretary of State Mark Martin, funded in part by backers of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a majority of the members of the Arkansas Legislature, Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce have campaigned to defeat the medical marijuana amendments. A recent Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll shows the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment trailing 45-50%.
Judge John Robbins was appointed by the court in mid-September to review Benca’s challenge that Arkansans for Compassionate Care did not meet the “sufficiency of signatures” during the process. Robbins found that 2,087 signatures should be disqualified, but the number would not enough to disqualify Issue 7. For example, Robbins said signatures that included a P.O. Box address instead of a residence address were clerical errors and should not be disqualified.
In writing the majority opinion, Associate Justice Karen Baker disagreed with Robbins’ findings.
“We agree with the disqualification of the business addresses, but we also disqualify the P.O. Box addresses. These signatures were not in compliance with the statute because a P.O. Box is not a residence address,” Baker wrote in Thursday’s opinion.
The opinion cited several other areas in which Robbins allowed signatures that the majority of the court believed should have been tossed out.
“Based on the discussion above, pursuant to amendment 7, the sponsor intervenor was required to submit a threshold number of 67,887 signatures to place the proposed Act on the ballot. Here, we have disallowed a total of approximately 12,104 signatures, leaving approximately 65,412 valid signatures, which is approximately 2,465 less than required to satisfy our constitutional requirements. Therefore, the sponsor intervenor has failed to meet the constitutional requirements, and we grant Benca’s petition,” Baker noted.
In his dissent, Chief Justice Howard Brill said he agreed with Robbins view that issues related to paid and non-paid signature gatherers “are wholly inapplicable” in this issue.
“While the sponsor’s canvassers did make some errors in the signature-gathering process, I agree with the master’s findings that these errors are not a complete failure with regard to the sufficiency of the signatures on the petition. The proposed act should remain on the ballot. The people should be permitted to vote on the initiative on November 8, and their votes should be counted. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent,” Brill noted.
Associate Justice Paul Danielson joined Brill in the dissent. In addition to Baker, Justices for removing Issue 7 were Robin Wynne, Courtney Goodson, Josephine Hart and Rhonda Wood.
Issue 7 is on the ballot, but votes will not be counted or certified.
Arkansans for Compassionate Care issued a statement via Facebook saying they plan to appeal Thursday’s decision. The group also said passage of competing Issue 6 is “better than nothing.”
“The Supreme Court ruled that Issue 7 has been removed from the ballot. We’re going to fight this and appeal in court. But we need to think what’s best for the patients. In the meantime we need to tell people to vote for both. If we win an appeal, then we’ll still be getting (Issue) 7 votes and if we lose we don’t tank (Issue) 6. I know it’s a painful call, but it’s the best option for patients. (Issue) 6 is better than nothing. And if both fail, patients will have to wait years.”
Following an event in Northwest Arkansas, Gov. Hutchinson told Talk Business & Politics he will focus his efforts on ensuring the remaining medical marijuana item is rejected by voters.
“The Supreme Court gave it every consideration and said it didn’t have enough signatures after they were reviewed, and so I know the voters may be frustrated because it’s late in the day on that but the Supreme Court wanted to give it plenty of time to consider it,” Hutchinson said. “We did have two marijuana amendments on the ballot, but one has been struck off. There remains one. I’m going to continue to campaign and express my concern about that amendment, because of the regulatory burden it will place on the state because it is not the right process to consider medicine. I want to listen to our medical community because they oppose this. So I hope the voters will give it a close look and conclude that that’s not the right direction for our state.”
Former U.S. Attorney and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Conner Eldridge announced his support for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment (Issue 6).
“As a prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney, I worked alongside law enforcement to fight drug-trafficking and to get drug dealers off the streets,” said Eldridge. “No one has been more dedicated to getting dangerous drugs out of our communities, but even I see the real difference between the work I did fighting drug-trafficking and allowing the development of a responsible medical marijuana program in Arkansas and nationally, and that is why I will be voting for Issue 6 on the ballot this year.”
Eldridge also praised the work of those behind Issue 7, saying they “also clearly share a belief that marijuana should be available for medicinal purposes … .”
“My experience as a prosecutor has shown me that we can fight the spread of illegal drugs and grant access to medical marijuana for people like my stepmother, who passed away from a recurrence of breast cancer in 2010,” Eldridge said in his statement. “There are more serious offenses we should be focusing on with law enforcement, including large scale drug trafficking involving methamphetamine, heroin, prescription drugs, and cocaine.”