2016 is going to be a big year for cannabis. As a result, we are ranking the fifty states from worst to best on how they treat cannabis and those who consume it. Each of our State of Cannabis posts will analyze one state and our final post will crown the best state for cannabis. As is always the case, but particularly so with this series, we welcome your comments. Today we round out our bottom-ten states with number 40: Arkansas. Our previous rankings are as follows: 41. Montana; 42. Iowa; 43. Virginia; 44. Wyoming; 45. Texas; 46. Kansas; 47. Alabama; 48. Idaho; 49. Oklahoma; 50. South Dakota.
Criminal Penalties. Arkansas treats possession of less than four ounces of marijuana as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine up to $2,500. Possession of any larger amount results in a potential felony conviction:
- 4 ounces to 10 pounds is punishable by up to a 6-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.
- 10-25 pounds is punishable by a mandatory 3-year minimum sentence that can extend up to 10 years, and a $10,000 fine.
- 25-100 pounds is punishable by a mandatory 5 year minimum sentence that can extend up to 20 years, and a fine $15,000 fine.
- 100-500 pounds is punishable by a mandatory 6 year minimum sentence that can extend to 30 years, and a $15,000 fine.
However, first time possession offenders may avoid jail time by being placed on parole for a year. Repeat possession offenders face doubled penalties for their convictions.
Penalties are harsher if the offender is caught delivering marijuana, which is defined as the transfer of marijuana in “exchange for money or anything of value.” Delivery of 14 grams or less is punishable by up to 1 year in jail and a potential fine of $2,500. If the amount is between 14 grams and 4 ounces the offender can face 6 years in prison and a potential fine of $10,000. Between 4 ounces and 25 pounds of marijuana can earn a mandatory 3 year minimum that can extend to 10 years, with a potential $10,000 fine. Delivery of between 25 pounds and 100 pounds of marijuana earns a mandatory 5 year minimum which can extend to 20 years and a fine of potentially $15,000. Finally, 100 pounds to 500 pounds earns a mandatory 6 year minimum that could extend to 30 years, plus a fine of up to $15,000.
Those caught with over 500 pounds of marijuana face a drug trafficking charge and a mandatory 10 year minimum sentence with a maximum of 40 years imprisonment.
Medical Marijuana. Arkansas does not have legal medical marijuana. In 2012, Arkansas voters narrowly rejected an initiative to legalize medical marijuana by 51.11%.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge recently approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative which means its supporters can start collecting the 85,00 signatures necessary to qualify for the November ballot (the AG’s opinion contains the full bill and is available here). The “Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016” would add a provision to Arkansas’s Constitution legalizing medical use of marijuana. Some key takeaways from the bill are as follows:
- Patients would be allowed to use medical marijuana after submitting a “written certification” from a physician stating they have a qualifying condition.
- Arkansas would allow for licensed cultivation facilities and dispensaries.
- There would be between 20-40 dispensary licenses and 4-8 cultivation licenses.
- Medical marijuana participants would be protected from criminal and civil penalties and “other forms of discrimination” for engaging in or assisting with medical use of marijuana.
The last point is particularly interesting because it appears to prohibit discrimination against medical marijuana users. We read that provision to potentially protect medical marijuana patients from being fired for using marijuana. The consensus across the country is that employers are free to fire employees for using marijuana, even in states where it is legal. If this portion of the bill remains and our reading of it is correct, Arkansas would become one of the few states to prohibit job discrimination against medical marijuana patients (for more on the ability of employers to fire someone for using medical cannabis check out Another Court Okays Firing an Employee for Legal Marijuana Use; Fired for Cannabis: Still Just Fine in Oregon and Alaska; Yes, You Can Get Fired for LEGALLY Smoking Marijuana; and Firing Employees for Medical Cannabis: Colorado Supreme Court Says That’s Okay).
It is not yet clear what will constitute a qualifying condition under the bill nor whether Arkansas will allow for high-THC marijuana or restrict its medical cannabis to only high-CBD oils, as has been the case with most other southern states (see e.g., Texas).
Little Rock Attorney David Couch presented the bill to the AG and he is confident it will pass. Mr. Couch told Talk Business and Politics that he has $1.5 million in initial funding to push the campaign, with backing from several Arkansas liquor store owners, national groups tied to the physician pain management industry, and at least one wealthy individual based in Arkansas.
A 2015 survey shows 84% of Arkansas voters favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. This overwhelming support for medical marijuana legalization means Mr. Couch’s amendment could be a reality in 2016. Though it is too early to predict what will happen at the ballot box, medical marijuana advocates in Arkansas have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Bottomline. Arkansas’s criminal penalties are extremely harsh, especially considering so many charges earn mandatory minimum sentences. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age people still can face mandatory jail time for possessing marijuana. Arkansas also does not allow medical marijuana.
Ironically, Arkansas license plates refer to Arkansas as “The Natural State,” but until it allows its own citizens to possess and use a natural plant, its moniker is a lie. Until Arkansas cannabis laws change, we urge cannabis users to avoid the “Natural State.”