LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court’s ruling last week that the medical marijuana ballot initiative is legally sufficient has cleared the way for a broader debate on its merits.
Proponents and opponents say they are moving into campaign mode as voters prepare to decide barely more than a month from now whether Arkansas will become the first Southern state to allow the use of marijuana as a medicine.
Questions to be considered include how the proposal would be implemented, its pros and cons for Arkansas and whether the state can avoid pitfalls experienced in some other states.
If voters approve the proposed initiated act, the state Health Department would establish rules under which a person with one or more of certain specified medical conditions could, with a doctor’s recommendation, apply for a card identifying him or her as a patient qualified to obtain and use marijuana legally for medicinal purposes.
Marijuana would be grown and dispensed at dispensaries licensed by the Health Department. Under the proposed law, one dispensary could be licensed for every 25 pharmacies in the state — that would allow 30 dispensaries today — but the Health Department could license more if it sees a need.
The dispensaries would be run by agents authorized by the Health Department. Cities and counties would have the option of banning the dispensaries.
Limited home cultivation of marijuana would be allowed by a qualifying patient who lives more than five miles from a dispensary, or a person who has been named a designated caregiver for that person by the Health Department. A designated caregiver could have no more than five patients at one time.
Dispensaries could cultivate no more than 95 flowering marijuana plants at one time. People authorized to grow marijuana at home could grow no more than six plants taller than 12 inches at one time, and the plants would have to be kept in an enclosed, locked facility. A designated caregiver could grow no more than six plants per patient.
The cost of the marijuana sold at dispensaries and the fee to apply for a card would be determined by the Health Department. The dispensaries would be nonprofit, with all proceeds going to cover the operating costs of the dispensaries and the Health Department’s regulatory expenses.
Cardholders could legally possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana, meaning the dried leaves and flowers of the plant, at one time. Designated caregivers could legally possess up to 2 1/2 ounces for each patient they serve.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now allow marijuana for medicinal use, none of them in the South. The amount of usable marijuana that states allow qualifying patients to possess ranges from 1 ounce in Alaska to 24 ounces in Washington and Oregon.
Opponents say the law would be a back door to legalizing marijuana in Arkansas. They point to states such as California, where marijuana is dispensed from at least 750 registered locations in Los Angeles alone and authorities say many locations are dispensing it illegally without registration.
"In California — we’re talking about Los Angeles, not a conservative bastion — the law enforcement officials there are closing down the dispensaries because they are so running amok with the law," said Larry Page, director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council.
"This is just absolutely unenforceable," Page said. "I believe that law enforcement, when they look at the facts and see what’s happening elsewhere, will get involved in this (opposition)."
Christopher Kell, spokesman for Arkansas for Compassionate Care, acknowledged that "in California there are more dispensaries than Starbucks," but he said the proposal on Arkansas’ ballot would not turn the state into another California.
"The California law is very simplistic," he said. "That was one of the things that we really wanted to improve on here, to make it very specific who was able to grow it, who was able to buy it and who was able to sell it."
Kell said the group studied problems encountered by other states and designed its 8,700-word proposed law to ensure those issues would be tightly controlled.
"It’s more tightly regulated than, to the best of my knowledge, in any other state in union," he said.
Kell also said he believed it was not a given that law enforcement officials would oppose the measure.
"The local police officers that I have talked to, they’re for this bill because they don’t want to arrest people that are taking it for medicinal purposes when they’ve got a quarter of an ounce in their car," he said.
Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, said that organization opposes the proposal, though it is continuing to study it.
"How are you going to actually measure the dosage? What’s going to preclude people from using it and driving?" Baldwin said. "Plus, it’s still against federal law."
Asked about the potential cost to the state to create and enforce the regulations the proposal would require, Kell said there may not be a cost.
"I don’t think it’ll put an additional burden on the state," he said. "The funding will come from the dispensaries and the application fees for the ID cards."
Health Department spokesman Ed Barham said the agency hopes to have a financial impact statement completed in a couple of weeks.
"We’re concerned about it, but we really aren’t at the point where we’d want to say yes, there will be a cost, or no," he said.
The complete text of the proposed act is available on the secretary of state’s website.
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