On Nov. 6, Arkansas voters will decide the fate of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act. They will base their decisions on faces more than facts.
Here are the facts: Passage would allow certain Arkansas patients to obtain a doctor’s written certification for up to 2.5 ounces of useable marijuana every 15 days. The act lists 17 medical conditions making a person eligible to use the drug. The Arkansas Department of Health can approve more.
Patients will be able to obtain the marijuana at dispensaries operated by nonprofits. Those who live more than five miles from a dispensary can grow up to six plants in an enclosed, locked facility. The patient can designate a caregiver to obtain the marijuana and grow the plants for them.
Voters will see a 384-word ballot title, all one lo-o-ong sentence, that would enact an 8,000-word state law. Even if it passes, growing or selling or using marijuana for any reason will still be illegal under federal law.
Those are the facts. The faces will belong to people like Emily Williams, 56, from Fayetteville. Two years ago, she endured chemotherapy after being diagnosed with lymphoma. The two pills she was given by the doctor after her first treatment did not alleviate her terrible nausea and pain, so she called an acquaintance who earlier had offered to help her obtain marijuana. She had used the drug briefly three decades earlier in college, didn’t like it, and planned to use it only once.
"Within 15 minutes, the nausea was gone; the headache was gone; the ache was gone," she said. "I stood up, walked in the house, went upstairs, took a shower, brushed my teeth, and went to bed and went to sleep."
The next morning, desperately sick and getting no relief from her medication, she called her acquaintance asking for more of the drug. During the next few treatments, she tried every other doctor-prescribed medication that was offered. Nothing worked except the marijuana, which she ate in butter she had melted and then refrigerated. To her, it was a natural treatment that was far preferable to the manmade chemical concoctions her doctors offered, all of which had side effects and one of which later was removed from the market.
She hid what she was doing until about halfway through her treatment regimen when she finally told her husband, Kit, the Fayetteville city attorney. He supported her actions and still has his job.
The leading group opposing the measure, Little Rock-based Family Council, is running a television commercial featuring its own faces – those of drug dealers and young people smoking pot. The group’s executive director, Jerry Cox, says passage will make marijuana more available and therefore more common. Of course, he’s right. He says this is really a back-door attempt to legalize marijuana across the state, a blanket charge I don’t accept, though I’m sure that has been a motivation of some backers and some of the people who signed the petition.
Cox doesn’t discount that cannabis may have medicinal benefits. However, he says those should be demonstrated through medical research. Then the drug should be produced like every other drug in America – through a regulated process, not grown in people’s backyards.
The Arkansas Medical Society has not taken a position on the issue at this time, but the pharmacists and law enforcement groups are opposed. Allen Hamby, president of the Arkansas Fraternal Order of Police, told me that not a single member of his board of trustees supports the idea. He said having a state law contradict federal law places police in an awkward position. "We’ve got a drug that we fight every day as law enforcement, and they’re trying to make it legal, and we’re afraid it’s going to be abused," he told me.
The Food and Drug Administration has not found a medicinal use for marijuana in its natural state, though it has approved a synthetic version known as Marinol. Something must be wrong with the FDA’s research, because Emily Williams is not lying.
That leads to a lot of questions Arkansas voters will have to answer. Who would want to deny cancer patients a natural remedy that would alleviate their suffering? On the other hand, is this the way to introduce a medicine into the drug supply – by letting people just grow it on their own and letting doctors approve its use without anyone knowing who it helps and how? How do you ask law enforcement to fight a war on drugs and then make drugs more available? And how can something be legal in Arkansas but illegal in America? The entire proposition rests on the hope that the federal government won’t enforce its own laws.
To move forward, scientific research is needed that would demonstrate the benefits of medical marijuana. Then the FDA should work with the medical community, law enforcement, and Congress to create a safe, legal, consistent distribution process.
Because that has not happened, I’m voting no, which is easy to write from the comfort of my office. However, I’d have a tough time saying it to Emily Williams’ face – the face I’ll imagine in the voting booth. The last poll I saw showed Arkansans were split on the issue. I understand why.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org