Of the many states that voted on marijuana reforms in 2016, Arkansas – #40 in our State of Cannabis series – is for me the most intriguing. This November Arkansas voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow medical marijuana use by qualified patients and to authorize medical marijuana dispensaries and cannabis cultivation facilities for that purpose. The ballot measure, known alternatively as Issue 6 and as the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, passed by a 53% to 47% vote. This is an almost exact reversal of the vote that rejected a different medical marijuana initiative in 2012.
Issue 6 is fairly progressive, at least by the standards of some states’ very restrictive medical marijuana laws. Qualifying conditions for cannabis in Arkansas include a long list of afflictions, including catch-all categories for ailments that cause chronic pain, nausea, seizures, or muscle spasms. The amendment authorizes use of cannabis flower, vapor, wax, and oil by qualified patients. The amendment officially takes effect in 120 days, during which time state authorities are to develop necessary rules and regulations. Once implemented, patients will be able to obtain registrant cards from their physician.
Interestingly, Issue 6 was originally not the only medical marijuana proposal on the ballot in Arkansas this year. Issue 7, which would have created a similar but distinct program, was slated to go before voters until the Arkansas Supreme Court struck it from the ballot in October after invalidating thousands of signatures, bringing the amendment below the ballot access threshold. Issue 7 would have added several more ailments to the list of cannabis qualifying conditions, including anorexia, asthma, and autism. It also would have authorized home cultivation of medical marijuana, which is not permitted by Issue 6.
Ironically, the signature challenge was brought by a pair of attorneys who advocate complete cannabis legalization. Despite their support for cannabis reform, they worried inclusion of Issue 7 on the same ballot as Issue 6 would risk failure of both initiatives by causing voter confusion. Though advocates of Issue 6 described the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision to strike Issue 7 from the ballot as “bittersweet” at the time, the success of Issue 6 should please both parties, especially since several conditions not specifically listed as cannabis eligible under Issue 6 may nonetheless fall into one of its broad symptom-based categories.
Issue 6’s convincing victory at the ballot box should be heartening to advocates of marijuana reform. Arkansas’ embrace of medical marijuana may serve as a model for other conservative states and may help anchor what middle-of-the-road solutions for those states going forward. Issue 6’s success reflects the broad, bipartisan nature of the trend towards cannabis reform. To illustrate, both solid red Arkansas and true blue California approved liberal cannabis laws in 2016 by similar margins. Issue 6 passed with about 53% of the vote and California’s Proposition 64 passed with about 57%. In the same election, however, these two states had near opposite outcomes in the presidential race: Arkansas went to Trump with 60% of the vote and Clinton won California with a 61% majority, highlighting that cannabis reform is oftentimes not a Democrat-Republican issue. Arkansas is yet one more sign that we as a country are on the precipice of a tipping point towards general acceptance of cannabis.