Arkansas Senate takes on medical pot, AG restates opinion that state is obligated to implement voter initiative

by Wesley Brown ( 803 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Monday (Mar. 6) overwhelmingly rejected a measure to ban the smoking of medical marijuana, but narrowly adopted a proposal to prevent Arkansas military personnel from registering as a patient or caregiver for a medical pot user.

The two measures were considered only a few hours before Attorney General Leslie Rutledge reaffirmed an earlier opinion that the state is obligated to create a fund to defray certain administrative and regulatory costs just as the lawmakers are faced with a mountain of legislation on how to implement the ballot item approved by Arkansas voters in November.

Both amendments, which required a two-thirds majority vote by the Senate, were proposed amendments that would alter the Medical Marijuana Amendment. They were among a long list of bills considered by the Senate ahead of the bill filing deadline for the 91st General Assembly as the session enters its ninth week.

In pitching Senate Bill 357, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, brought up his same talking points from committee that the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce cigarette smoking, which, unlike the smoke from a marijuana cigarette, doesn’t intoxicate those nearby. He also touted support from a long list of medical, pharmaceutical and health organizations, including the American Lung Association.

But Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, offered an unusual rebuttal to SB238 by initially saying he agreed with everything Rapert argued at the podium and had initially campaigned against the proposed constitutional amendment ahead of the November election. But Hutchinson said now that Arkansas voters had approved the measure, lawmakers are obligated to fulfill the wishes of the electorate.

“The bottom line is after spending weeks of preaching that message across the state of Arkansas, the people have spoken and said, ‘We want medical marijuana.’ I agree with that. There’s a lot of bad things that people want,” Hutchinson said, mentioning smoking and body piercings.

After the floor debate, the Senate rejected the amendment by a vote of 10-15 with nine non-voting members. Immediately afterward, the vote was expunged, setting up the possibility that the bill could come back before the Senate again.

A few hours later, Rutledge responded to an earlier request for three opinions at the beginning of the 2017 session by Rapert, who filed SB238 to delay all of the Medical Marijuana Amendment until the federal government made it legal in all 50 states. In her response, Rutledge referred to an earlier opinion to similar questions by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, one of the chief architects of enabling legislation to implement the voter-approved amendment. Rutledge wrote that “the General Assembly is obligated under the plain terms of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment (AMMA) of 2016 to create a fund to defray certain administrative and regulatory costs under the AMMA.”

Rutledge also noted that the Legislature will also be required to appropriate state sales tax revenues and other revenues generated under the legislation to distribute to state agencies charged with administering various aspects of the amendment.

“The AMMA authorizes the General Assembly to enact additional appropriations, depending upon the availability of other funds,” the AG wrote.

Rutledge declined to offer an opinion on two other similar questions from Rapert on whether lawmakers who vote to implement the medical marijuana legislation in Arkansas would violate their oath of office and federal law. The Republican AG noted that she could not offer an opinion on the questions because it would constitute giving legal advice on a potential case the state may face in the future.

Senate lawmakers also approved HB1451 by Rep. Trevor Drown, R-Dover, which would exempt Arkansas National Guard members and other military personnel in the state from being a patient or caregiver qualifying to use medical marijuana.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, chose not to run SB 333, which would ban the use of edible medical marijuana. It is also on the calendar for Tuesday, along with the governor’s proposal to separate the Martin Luther King Jr. and Gen. Robert E. Lee holidays.

Arkansas voters approved the state’s medical marijuana amendment in November 2016 by a 53-47% margin. State lawmakers are drafting and passing legislation to implement the constitutional amendment. Some legislators, including Rapert, have discussed delaying implementation until the feds draft a new policy or change the law. A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey conducted earlier this month found that 51.5% of voters prefer the state to not wait for federal action before implementing the voter-approved measure.