Group to propose ballot issue for recreational marijuana, expunge low-level marijuana-related offenses (UPDATED)

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 3,207 views 

A medical cannabis advocacy and education group that has pushed for marijuana changes in Arkansas for several years said it plans to file two ballot petitions on Wednesday (July 10) that would legalize all cannabis sales and use in the Natural State and expunge the records of low-level pot offenders.

Melissa Fults, executive director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Education Group (DPEG), told Talk Business & Politics Tuesday (July 9) her organization plans to file the proposed ballot petitions with the Arkansas Secretary of State on Wednesday afternoon. Fults said the ballot proposals have been in the works for nearly a year, but her group has expedited the process as the legislature looks to make it harder to amend the state Constitution.

“They are completely trying to eliminate the petition process,” Fults said of House Joint Resolution 1008 that refers a ballot proposal to voters in 2020 that would substantially alter the amendment process and citizen-led referendums. “We figure this may be our last chance if the amendment passes.”

Fults added there is a consensus among medical marijuana advocates that the Arkansas General Assembly and the state Medical Marijuana Commission (MMC) have intentionally frustrated and delayed the launch of the state’s fledgling medical marijuana industry after voters approved Amendment 98, the ballot issue in the November 2016 election that legalized medical-grade cannabis.

In January, all 32 of the medical cannabis dispensaries were approved by Arkansas regulators to begin selling products in eight quadrants of the state. The first cannabis for medical use was sold in Hot Springs in early May, exactly 2-1/2 years after voters approved the 2016 initiative act. Today, the five dispensary storefronts now open for business have tallied total sales of $2 million, according to MMC officials.

“When we saw what they were doing and the chance that they were going to ruin the medical [marijuana] program, which they have, we knew that we didn’t have a choice,” Fults said. “We had to move forward and had to make sure that people quit going to jail, or who had probation or felonies, and the people who were left behind on the conditions will be able to use cannabis whether they have a card or not.”

Fults, a Democrat who lost an election bid for the Senate District 33 seat against Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, in November, was part of a coalition of medical marijuana advocates that also supported House Bill 1050, which would have tripled the current list of 18 qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The bill by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, the chief architect of the state medical marijuana legislation, failed to get out of committee during the 2019 legislative session.

According to details of the first proposal provided by Fults, the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment, or AAUCA, would designate the state Alcohol Beverage Control Division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration to issue licenses and establish the rules of the program while setting the minimum number of cultivation and distribution licenses allowed. Dispensaries licensed under Amendment 98 will be able to sell to adults 21 years of age and older starting December 4, 2020. Small home cultivation of six mature plants and six seedlings will be allowed.

The second ballot issue, called the Arkansas Marijuana Expungement Amendment, or AMEA, will allow persons with marijuana convictions involving marijuana paraphernalia or less than sixteen (16) ounces of marijuana to petition a court for release from incarceration, reduction of sentence, expungement of the conviction and/or restoration of rights. The amendment would authorize the creation of a dedicated court for this purpose.

Fults said DPEG originally sought to fold both ballot petitions into one amendment but decided to submit two proposals after their legal advisors said “an amendment within an amendment” would likely not be approved for the ballot by the state Attorney General’s office. If DPEG successfully files papers to form a ballot question committee for the two statewide referendums, it would be the second group since the 2019 legislative session ended to do so.

On June 11, Safe Surgery Arkansas (SSA) filed papers at the Secretary of State to form a ballot question committee to coordinate a statewide referendum challenging Act 579 of 2019. That new law opens the door for licensed optometrists, who were previously prohibited from using lasers, scalpels and injections in their local practice, to now perform certain surgical procedures in Arkansas.

Under current law, an initiated law requires signatures from 8% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election and a constitutional amendment requires 10%. To get on the ballot, signatures must be obtained from at least 15 of the 75 counties, and petitions containing the required number of signatures are to be submitted four months before the November 2020 election.

If the required number of signatures are submitted by that July date, petitioners can continue to collect signatures for an additional 30 days to make up for any deficiencies – known as the “cure period.”

If HJR 1008 is approved by the voters in November 2020, the number of signatures necessary to get on the ballot will remain the same, but they must come from at least 45 counties. Signatures will also have to be turned in by Jan. 15 of the election year, and there will be no “cure period” to collect more signatures.

Fults said she is still unsure of how many signatures DPEG will need in order to get both proposals on the 2020 ballot, but she believes each petition will need at least 90,000 signatures. She said the Hensley-based marijuana advocacy group will need about $500,000 to $1 million to support its petition drive and already has about 25,000 followers ready to volunteer to get signatures.

“Of those followers, we have some strong petitioners who are willing to get up and go and work,” said Fults. “We’ll begin fundraising and start to gather signatures hopefully by the beginning of August.”

Although the Illinois General Assembly in late June was the first legislative body to legalize cannabis and regulate its production, manufacturing and distribution, and the 11th state to approve marijuana for adult and recreation use, Fults said the Arkansas petition is drafted differently as a ballot measure rather than a bill.

According to details of Illinois’ new law that was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzer on June 25, residents in that state who are 21 or older can legally possess and purchase up to 30 grams of marijuana, while those visiting from out-of-state may legally possess half that amount. The new law also sets up a regulated market for cultivators, processors, retail stores, and testing labs, allowing local communities to opt-in on having on-site cannabis consumption, known as cannabis cafés.

The Illinois law also includes several criminal justice reform and social equity provisions, including a far-reaching expungement provision that allows people convicted of marijuana-related offenses to petition the state to have those arrest and conviction records cleared. The bill also includes funding for communities hard-hit by the nation’s so-called drug war and provides funding to businesses operated by those harmed by marijuana prohibition and to areas disproportionately impacted by marijuana-related convictions.

Fults said the Arkansas Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who opposed Amendment 98 in 2016, would never support a similar bill in Arkansas. She said her group is disappointed with the weak rollout, slow sales and high prices for medical-grade marijuana in Arkansas that are double the prices in Oregon, California and Colorado.

With only five out of the 32-approved dispensaries now open for business, Fults said many of the 15,743 qualified patients and caregivers with a state-approved ID card still can’t access or afford medical marijuana in Arkansas.

“They set it up to fail. We would have a ‘snowballs chance’ of getting this through the [Arkansas] legislature,” said Fults. “[The legislature] has done everything they could to see that as few people as possible could have marijuana.”

At a Rotary Club luncheon held at the Clinton Presidential Library on Tuesday, Gov. Hutchinson mentioned the possible petition drive for adult use marijuana amid the MMC’s announcement this week that cannabis sales in Arkansas had reached $2.2 million since the first purchase in May.

“We set up an environment in Arkansas that is careful because we want to treat it like medicine, make sure it is available to the patients, and we want to make sure that it is cultivated, then it is transported and protected and doesn’t wind up on the black market for other purposes …,” Hutchinson told the Rotary Club audience.

Hutchinson, the former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and undersecretary at the federal Department of Homeland Security, said the proposed initiated act for recreational marijuana use goes a step further and would undermine the capacity and production for medical grade marijuana in Arkansas.

“I do not think it is the right direction to go for Arkansas. So, I would encourage you, ‘don’t sign that petition, don’t support that initiative’ – let’s make sure we get the medicinal marijuana right and hold the line of distinction at that point,” Hutchinson said to applause.

Under rules approved by the legislature in 2017, state regulators have approved licenses for five cannabis cultivation facilities and 32 retail dispensaries. That capacity can be expanded, if necessary, for up to eight marijuana greenhouses and 40 dispensaries.