Court clears medical marijuana proposal for ballot


LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a challenge to a proposed initiated act to legalize medical marijuana in the state, meaning voters will decide the issue in November.

The court rejected arguments by the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values, an alliance of Christian conservative groups, that the ballot question does not adequately define the proposal and that the proposed act would conflict with state and federal laws.

“We’re super excited to finally have this thing behind us, and we look forward to educating the people of Arkansas on the properties of this medicine and getting this thing passed in November,” said Christopher Kell, spokesman for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the measure’s sponsor.

Members of the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values said they disagreed with the ruling and would campaign against the measure’s passage.

“It’s not going to be medical. It’s going to be, anybody who wants it can have it,” Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

The secretary of state’s office previously certified the measure for the ballot, and Martin spokesman Alex Reed said Thursday’s ruling means that votes it receives will be counted.

“Now it seems as if it’s up to the people,” Reed said.

If approved, the initiated act would allow up to 30 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state but would give cities and counties the option of banning them. The marijuana would only be available to people with prescriptions for certain health conditions, including chronic pain, glaucoma, Hepatitis C and those who are terminally ill.

The proposal would allow limited cultivation of marijuana by a qualifying patient, or the patient’s designated caregiver, if the patient lives more than five miles from a dispensary.

After Martin certified the measure, the coalition opposing it filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to strike it from the ballot. Among other things, the coalition argued that the 384-word ballot title was too short to provide an adequate description of the 8,700-word proposed initiated act.

In its unanimous opinion Thursday, the court disagreed.

“After reviewing the ballot title of 384 words, we conclude that the title informs the voters in an intelligible, honest and impartial manner of the substance matter of the act,” Justice Karen Baker wrote in the opinion. “The ballot title is not unduly long, nor is it complex and misleading.”

The court also disagreed with the opponents’ argument that key terms such as “medical use” and “dispensaries” are not defined.

“A ballot title need not define every single term,” Baker wrote in the opinion.

The opponents further argued that the ballot title omits key words and phrases that would give voters cause to reflect and uses terms such as “medical marijuana” that are designed to give voters a favorable impression of the measure. They argued that the popular name of the measure, “Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act,” should instead be, “An Act to Permit Qualifying Persons to Grow, Possess and Use Marijuana.”

The court said it did not find the language partisan and did not find it deficient for failing to use terms suggested by the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values.

“The popular name, ‘Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act,’ consist of four words,” Baker wrote. “Each word is one that the voters are familiar with, commonly use, understand, and the words are presented in an intelligent, honest, impartial manner.”

The court also rejected the opponents’ argument that the measure, if passed, would violate the state and federal constitutions and state and federal statutes.

The coalition “bases its assertions on situations that may arise, if the law is passed, not language that is clearly contrary to either the constitutions or state and federal law,” Baker wrote in the opinion.

Melissa Fults, treasurer for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said the ruling is good news for people who need marijuana to cope with chronic pain, like her 30-year-old son, who was severely injured in an accident at age 18. Fults said that before her son began using marijuana, the side effects of the prescription drugs he was taking were slowly killing him.

“This news today is just one step closer to my son being able to have the medication he needs to live, legally,” she said.

Kell said the group will work to raise money for media advertising and will have a “full-on, boots-on-the-ground campaign” to get the vote out.

“Our hands have been tied up, first getting the signatures to get the thing on the ballot and then this court case has kind of held us up on everything, but now this is through we hope to start collecting funds as soon as possible,” he said. “We’d like to be up on the air at least three weeks out.”

The general election is Nov. 6.

Cox said opponents will fight for the measure’s defeat.

“We’re already shifting into campaign mode,” he said. “We have just a short time to get the word out to the people of Arkansas about just how flawed this measure is. Our message to the people of Arkansas, at least one of them, is going to be, ‘This is simply a backdoor effort to legalize marijuana in Arkansas.”

Cox said the coalition will reach out to churches and civic clubs and use social media to rally opposition to the measure. Larry Page, director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, said media advertising will be part of the coalitions’ campaign if resources allow.