Polling is tightening for a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Arkansas, with a new survey finding slim majority support as more Republicans seem to be dropping off amid a concerted opposition push from conservative lawmakers.
The new poll from Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College that was released on Sunday showed about 51 percent support for the cannabis measure, including 37 percent of likely who said they are “definitely for” legalization. Forty-three percent are against, including 34 percent who “definitely” feel that way.
With just about two weeks until the midterm election, activists with Responsible Growth Arkansas have their work cut out for them to ensure that they stay above that 50 percent threshold and, ideally, convince the roughly seven percent of undecided voters to more comfortably pass the initiative.
The same firm behind this latest survey showed the measure passing by a notably greater margin, with 59 percent support, last month. Where support appears to be falling is among GOP voters, whose opposition to the reform proposal climbed from 41 percent to 60 percent since September.
Republican support also fell by 15 percentage points among those in the 45-64 year-old demographic.
Independent voters’ backing for the reform is also dropping.
“While Democrats are unchanged, support has dropped by 12-percentage points and opposition has risen by 13-percentage points among Independents,” Robert Coon, a political strategist for Republican political candidates, said in an analysis. “The trend line heading into Election Day is one that should concern supporters and energize opponents, and will likely make the vote much closer than previously expected.”
The significant shift among conservative voters especially may be connected to the organized opposition campaign, which has seen figures like Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and John Boozman (R-AR) become more vocal in urging people to reject the marijuana measure.
While those politicians took an early stance against the proposal, opposition efforts have picked up since the state Supreme Court ruled late last month that votes would be counted for Issue 4 following a legal challenge.
“An issue that felt like a slam dunk before the Supreme Court action now feels like a very close call. Issue 4 is, for sure, advantaged but this one will likely be close,” Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College who helped craft the poll, said.
The latest survey involved interviews with 974 likely Arkansas voters from October 17-18, with a +/-3.9 percentage point margin of error.
Political organizations like Safe and Secure Communities, Family Council Action Committee and Save Arkansas from Epidemic have been campaigning against the measure and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.
Advocates have partly made their case for the initiative by emphasizing how tax revenue from marijuana sales will be allocated, focusing on tax dollars that will go toward law enforcement in the state.
One ad that talked about that revenue and featured video of a person in a police uniform faced criticism from the Little Rock Police Department. The city asked that the ad be removed, but the campaign declined to do so, arguing that it did not depict any specific department’s insignia.
Hutchinson, a former Drug Enforcement Administration head, previously suggested it was a given that the measure would end up before voters and urged police to help campaign against it.
Meanwhile, a recent economic analysis found that Arkansas’s marijuana market could see nearly $1 billion in annual cannabis sales and more than $460 million in tax revenue over five years if voters approve the measure.
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 or 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.
Responsible Growth Arkansas 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.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.