The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that votes on a marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot will be counted after all. In a 5-2 opinion, the justices overturned a Board of Election Commissioners’s ruling that the measure’s ballot title is misleading.
Last month, the court said that due to election deadlines coming up amid a legal challenge brought by the legalization campaign, the measure would appear on the ballot—but the question of whether votes would ever be counted was left up in the air.
Elections officials had raised concerns about possible voter confusion over ballot title language related to issues such as THC limits, but the court ultimately did not agree.
The majority opinion notes that the “initiative power lies at the heart of our democratic institutions,” concluding that “the people will decide whether to approve the proposed amendment in November.”
“We give the ballot title a liberal construction and interpretation in order that it secure the purposes of reserving to the people this power. And we recognize that it is impossible to prepare a ballot title that would suit everyone,” the court said. “With these standards in mind, we conclude that the ballot title at issue is complete enough to convey an intelligible idea of the scope and import of the proposed amendment.
State officials and prohibitionist groups that intervened in the case “have not met their burden of proving that the ballot title is insufficient,” the justices wrote.
The Responsible Growth Arkansas campaign submitted about 193,000 signatures—more than double what’s required to qualify the constitutional amendment—in July. The secretary of state’s office later announced that it had processed enough petitions to confirm that there were sufficient signatures for ballot placement.
“We applaud the Court’s decision and thank them for protecting the ballot initiative process here in Arkansas,” Steve Lancaster, legal counsel for the legalization campaign, said in a press release.
“The power to adopt laws by initiative lies at the heart of our democratic institutions in Arkansas, and today that power has been respected,” he said. “Nearly 200,000 Arkansans signed Responsible Growth Arkansas’ petition and now will be allowed to vote on the state’s first adult-use cannabis amendment this November. We thank the Arkansas Supreme Court for their correct and expeditious decision.”
A poll last week found that 59 percent of likely voters support the legalization ballot measure.
The pro-legalization campaign isn’t taking passage for granted, however, and released an ad last month that tells residents that a vote to legalize marijuana in the state is a “vote to support our police.”
Under the proposal, 15 percent of adult-use marijuana sale tax revenue would go to law enforcement. The law enforcement components of the campaign have drawn some criticism from certain reform advocates.
Meanwhile, several Republican elected officials in the state are vocally opposing the measure.
For example, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R)—a former Drug Enforcement Administration head—suggested it was a given that the measure would end up before voters and urged police to help campaign against it.
Here’s what the campaign’s marijuana legalization initiative would accomplish:
-Adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis from licensed retailers.
-Home cultivation would not be allowed.
-The measure would make a series of changes to the state’s existing medical cannabis program that was approved by voters in 2016, including a repeal of residency requirements to qualify as a patient in the state.
-The state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Division of the Department of Finance and Administration would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.
-Regulators would need to license existing medical cannabis dispensaries to also serve adult consumers, and also permit them to open another retail location for recreational marijuana sales only. A lottery system would award licenses for 40 additional adult-use retailers.
-There are no provisions to expunge or seal past criminal records for marijuana or to provide specific social equity licensing opportunities for people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.
-The state could impose up to a 10 percent supplemental tax on recreational cannabis sales, in addition to the existing state and local sales tax.
-Tax revenue would be divided up between law enforcement (15 percent), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (10 percent) and the state drug court program (five percent). The remaining revenue would go to the state general fund.
-People who own less than five percent of a marijuana businesses would no longer be subject to background checks.
-The legislature could not repeal of amend the state’s medical marijuana statutes without voter approval.
-Local governments could hold elections to prohibit adult-use retailers in their jurisdiction if voters approve the decision.
-Individuals could now own stake in more than 18 dispensaries.
-There would be advertising and packaging restrictions, including a requirement that marijuana products must be sold in tamper-resistant packages.
-Dispensaries would be able to cultivate and store up to 100 seedings, instead of 50 as prescribed under the current medical cannabis law.
A former Arkansas Democratic House minority leader, Eddie Armstrong, is behind the Responsible Growth Arkansas constitutional amendment, which he filed in January.
“This court decision means Arkansans will ultimately have the last say and choice to vote for Issue 4 this fall. The economic benefits to our state, increased funding for law enforcement, cancer research, and tackling our state’s challenging prison overcrowding crisis by reforming our current law that safely decriminalizes cannabis,” Armstrong said on Thursday. “These are major strides in the right direction and will have a lasting positive impact across all sectors of Arkansas.”
The group is just one of several campaigns that have pursued cannabis reform through the ballot this year, though backers of competing initiatives have since acknowledged they wouldn’t be able to collect enough signatures to qualify this year.
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Supporters of the separate campaigns, Arkansas True Grass and Arkansans for Marijuana Reform, have raised concerns with the provisions of the Responsible Growth Arkansas initiative, suggesting it would favor big businesses in the existing medical cannabis industry. Some have said they may look to 2024 to try again with their own approaches.
Stephen Lancaster, a spokesperson for Responsible Growth Arkansas, previously told Marijuana Moment that the campaign hopes that won’t be necessary. His campaign feels that the constitutional amendment provides a sound infrastructure for reform that prioritizes regulations—and the plan is to push for further reforms in the legislature if voters approve legalization at the polls. That would include efforts to promote expungements, which isn’t addressed by the initiative.