Arkansas’s governor and other conservative officials have their work cut out for them as they attempt to convince voters to reject a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the November ballot, a new poll suggests. This comes as the state Supreme Court weighs a legal challenge that will decide whether votes on the proposal will end up being counted.
The survey from Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College, released on September 15, found that 59 percent of likely voters in Arkansas are in favor of the ballot measure, with just 29 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided.
The question that the pollster put to respondents specifically talked about the initiative, rather than the general concept of legalization. Support is also notably higher for the ballot-specific question compared to when the same firm surveyed voters about the issue in February, when 54 percent said they back the policy change.
Here’s the language of the latest question: “On November 8th, voters will be asked to consider one proposed constitutional amendment proposed by the people. Issue 4 would authorize the possession, personal use, and consumption of cannabis by adults in Arkansas sold by licensed adult use dispensaries and provide for the regulation of those facilities. If the election were held today, would you vote for or against Issue 4?”
“This strong showing by Issue 4 does put GOP candidates in a challenging spot as they determine whether to stay quiet or oppose the measure.”
The poll revealed majority support across multiple demographics, and there’s now plurality support among Republicans despite a stepped-up push from GOP lawmakers to persuade voters to oppose the measure. Among Democrats, 75 percent said they are in favor of the ballot initiative. And independents back legalization at 63 percent.
Jay Barth, an emeritus professor at Hendrix College, said in an analysis that “because of the division among Republicans, this strong showing by Issue 4 does put GOP candidates in a challenging spot as they determine whether to stay quiet or oppose the measure.”
“On the other hand, we will likely see Democratic candidates taking a stronger stance in support of Issue 4 as they attempt to attach themselves to a popular measure, particularly with low-propensity younger voters,” Barth said. “The biggest question of all, of course: Will those votes even count at all?”
The survey involved interviews with 835 likely voters in Arkansas on September 12, with a +/-3.8 percentage point margin of error.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and US Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and John Boozman (R-AR) are among the conservative voices imploring voters to reject the initiative, even as the Arkansas Supreme Court continues to consider whether votes will even count.
Responsible Growth Arkansas, the group behind the initiative, is also up against conservative political committees that are opposing the reform. Financial disclosure statements filed on September 15 showed that two donors contributed about $2 million in collective funding to the anti-legalization group, Safe and Secure Communities, 4StateNews reported. The group had already received $250,000 from one of the donors.
That organization launched a website to fight legalization as part of a digital opposition campaign. Hutchinson, Cotton and Boozman each promoted the site in recent Twitter posts, stating that they would be voting “no” on Issue 4 and that others should follow suit.
“The science is clear. Recreational marijuana leads to increased drug use among minors & more dangerous roadways,” the governor said, three days before the new poll was conducted. “This November, I’m voting NO on Issue 4 to legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas & I hope you’ll join me.”
Sen. Cotton said that “Following California’s path on marijuana would be a mistake for Arkansas.”
“Legalizing marijuana often means more crime, more violence, and more impaired driving,” he added. “California’s experience is a warning for Arkansas.”
And Sen. Boozman insisted that legalization is not the “win-win” advocates say it is. US Representative French Hill (R-AR) is also spreading the message to vote against Issue 4.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how much funding there is for two other recently formed PACs, Save Arkansas from Epidemic and Family Council Action Committee, that are opposing the initiative.
But Responsible Growth Arkansas, the pro-legalization campaign, is taking its own steps to maintain and expand support for the proposal, including releasing 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 criticism from certain reform advocates.
Several longtime activists in the state are against the proposed initiative because they feel it unfairly tilts the scales.
Gov. Hutchinson, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator, recently rallied state law enforcement to “stand firm” in opposition to the legalization ballot initiative.
As these battles play out ahead of election day, there are still looming questions about whether legalization would be enacted regardless of the outcome of the vote.
While the campaign turned in more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, the state Board of Election Commissioners voted against certifying the measure last month, arguing that the ballot title and summary are misleading. That prompted petitioners to file suit with the state Supreme Court to settle the matter.
As an interim step, the court did order the state to certify the legalization initiative, so it will appear on the ballot. But as the case enters the merits phase, there’s an open question as to whether any votes will ultimately be counted.
The Arkansas Supreme Court said last month that Safe and Secure Communities and the national prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) were allowed to intervene in the legal challenge.
The Arkansas attorney general’s office separately filed a brief in the case, agreeing with the elections board that the ballot summary and title are affirmatively misleading to voters.
There are also several longtime activists in the state who are against the proposed initiative because they feel it unfairly tilts the scales, with excessive regulations that they feel would make the adult-use market uncompetitive and benefit a small pool of stakeholders.
Here’s what the Arkansas 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 drug war.
*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 (5 percent). The remaining revenue would go to the state general fund.
*People who own less than 5 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 stakes 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 seedlings, 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.
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 for November.
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.
The plan is to push for further reforms in the legislature if voters approve legalization. That would include efforts to promote expungement.
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 Issue 4’s 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 expungement, which isn’t addressed by the initiative.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Democratic Party and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones are leveraging the popular issue and backing the legalization initiative.
“My stance on cannabis? Same as it has been—Legalize and decriminalize it,” Jones said. “Democratize access for a wide and diverse set of entrepreneurs. Leverage the revenue opportunity to invest in an Arkansas where everyone can thrive.”
“Arkansans have a right to the ballot initiative process and should be able to have a say in whether or not recreational marijuana is approved in this state,” he continued. “The ballot initiative process is one of the few ways Arkansans get to have a seat at the table.”
Photograph by Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.