Casino, marijuana groups submit ballot signatures

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 359 views 

Groups submitted signatures for the November ballot on Friday (July 5) for a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand medical marijuana access in Arkansas and another that would revoke the Pope County casino license while allowing local option voting for all future casinos statewide.

Arkansans for Patient Access, the group supporting expanded medical marijuana availability, said it submitted 111,402 signatures.

Local Voters in Charge delivered what it said was 162,181 signatures for a constitutional amendment that would nullify a Pope County casino license approved by voters statewide in 2018. The amendment would require future casinos to first to be approved by a majority of voters in a special election in the counties where they would be located.

Groups seeking to pass a constitutional amendment must collect 90,704 valid voter signatures, which is equal to 10% of the number of votes cast in the most recent governor’s election, with sufficient numbers in 50 counties. For an initiated act, which is a law passed by voters, supporters must collect 72,563 signatures, or 8% of the votes cast in the most recent governor’s election, with sufficient numbers in 50 counties.

The 50-county requirement is the result of Act 236 of 2023. It requires petitioners for constitutional amendments to collect signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast in that county in the most recent governor’s election. For initiated acts, it’s 4% of the votes cast in that election.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and the League of Women Voters have challenged that law’s constitutionality.

The secretary of state’s office has until Aug. 22 to certify the initiatives. Spokesperson Chris Powell said the office has hired up to 90 temporary staff members in anticipation of receiving up to seven ballot initiatives. The most it has received in recent years has been four.

Arkansans for Patient Access said it submitted sufficient signatures in 62 counties for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.

It would make a number of changes to an amendment passed by voters in 2016 that legalized medical marijuana. Those would include allowing access based on any medical need rather than the current list of qualifying ailments; allowing patients and designated adult caregivers to grow up to 14 marijuana plants; and allowing physician assistants, nurse practitioners and pharmacists to certify medical marijuana cards.

The amendment also would allow patients to be certified by visiting a medical practitioner via telemedicine. It also would make medical marijuana available to individuals who are not Arkansas residents. It would remove application fees for identification cards and would lengthen the expiration date for new cards from one year to three.

The amendment also includes a trigger law allowing adults to possess an ounce of cannabis if marijuana is no longer listed on the federal government’s Schedule of Controlled Substances or if Congress changes the law so that marijuana possession is no longer a federal crime.

“Our canvassers found voters eager to place an amendment on the ballot that will eliminate barriers to access and make it less expensive to acquire and keep a medical marijuana card,” said Bill Paschall, Arkansans for Patient Access campaign committee member, in a press release.

He later added, “As we move into the fall, we look forward to educating Arkansans all across the state about this amendment and the medicinal benefits of marijuana.”

Arkansans for Patient Access had raised $1.167 million as of May 30, according to its most recent campaign finance report filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Among the groups opposing the amendment is the Family Council Action Committee. It said in a press release that it would support and coordinate legal challenges if the amendment qualifies for the ballot.

Executive Director Jerry Cox said in the press release, “The marijuana amendment would drastically expand marijuana in Arkansas. The amendment makes it possible for people to grow and use ‘medical’ marijuana without suffering from a specific medical condition listed in state law. The amendment also repeals restrictions that protect children from marijuana advertisements. The amendment’s ballot title is so complicated that it fails to explain to the voter exactly how the amendment changes Arkansas’ medical marijuana laws and what effect those changes will have on our state. That is one reason why this amendment is fatally flawed and should not appear on the ballot.”

Hans Stiritz, acting spokesperson for Local Voters in Charge, the group seeking to rescind the Pope County casino license and allow local option voting for casinos, said the group met the required number of signatures in all 75 counties.

“We’re greatly relieved,” he told reporters. “I mean, this is a big issue, and it should be a big issue for the entire state. Who controls and decides commercialized gambling in your own community? It should be the local voters, and that did not happen in the 2018 amendment, and we’re trying to put that back into the Constitution in the state of Arkansas.”

He said Pope County voters opposed the 2018 amendment by a 61% margin.

Local Voters in Charge had raised $2.45 million for its campaign as of May 30, according to its most recent campaign finance report. All but $100 of that came from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which operates casinos in Oklahoma.

The Arkansas Racing Commission on June 12 accepted an application from Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Entertainment for the Pope County license. Cherokee Nation Entertainment plans a $300 million investment with a 50,000-square-foot casino with 1,200 slot machines and other amenities.

Opposing the group’s efforts is Investing in Arkansas. It had raised $775,000 from Cherokee Nation Businesses as of May 30. Natalie Ghidotti, the group’s Arkansas vice chairman, said Local Voters in Charge’s goal is not local control but revoking the casino license.

“Arkansas voters approved Amendment 100 in 2018, and a majority of Pope County voters still stand by that decision,” she said in an emailed statement. “This small group, funded by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is trying to rob Arkansans of thousands of jobs and shut down what will be historic economic growth for the community, region and state.”