Organizers hope the third time is the charm for an initiative that would allow seriously ill patients in Arkansas lawful access to medical marijuana. Efforts in 2000 and 2002 stalled during the signature-gathering phase, and because of delays in securing approval from state Attorney General Mike Beebe (D) for ballot language this year, the signature-gathering period is even shorter.
But after twice rejecting proposed language, Beebe this week gave his statutorily required okay, and the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Initiative campaign is hitting the ground running. "We will have major teams of canvassers going door-to-door, said Denele Campbell, executive director of the Arkansas Alliance for Medical Marijuana (http://www.arkansasalliance.org), the group that is spearheading the campaign. "It will be hard work, but we've got a lot of good people and we're optimistic that we can get the job done," she told DRCNet.
The delays in winning approval of the ballot language by Beebe were not an effort to sabotage the initiative, said Campbell. "We needed to get it just right," she explained. "In Arkansas, the attorney general has to certify that the ballot both summarizes and explains everything the proposed law will do and that it is readable by the average voter within a certain period of time. We were not surprised that we had to go back a couple of times."
The attorney general has good reason to want solid ballot language, Campbell said. "Here, once the ballot title is approved and you've gathered the signatures, whoever your opponents are will wait until October, then file a lawsuit to knock you off the ballot," she said. "In that case, it's the attorney general who defends the ballot language, and wants a ballot that can be defended."
If passed by voters in November, the initiative would allow patients whose doctors find they suffer from a "debilitating medical condition" to obtain a registry identification card from the Arkansas Department of Health. Holders of such a card would be allowed to possess and use marijuana without fear of arrest or prosecution. Patients or their designated caregivers ("marijuana providers") could possess up to six plants or one ounce of usable marijuana.
It is past time to bring medical marijuana to Arkansas, said Campbell. "We've been working on this for five years, and we owe it to the patients to get it done."
One of the people Campbell has in mind is a 68-year-old Northwest Arkansas woman who uses marijuana to alleviate symptoms of post-polio syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome. The woman, who asked that her name not be revealed, told DRCNet she suffers from not being able to obtain marijuana from a dependable legal source. "Marijuana is definitely a medical benefit to me," she said, "and now I have to find it where I can, on the black market. But the supply here is just not that great," she said.
This patient knows how it could be. "I lived in California, where I helped work on Proposition 215, and where I could and did get a recommendation from my doctor. I belonged to the Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco and was able to buy it there," she related. "But I came back here to care for my Dad, and it was a different world. Now I run the constant risk not only of arrest but of getting kicked out of my apartment because these apartments prohibit drugs of any kind."
But marijuana works for her. "I can take all kinds of drugs for pain or muscle relaxation, but this is still what works best for me," she said. "If I had the wherewithal, I would move to another place where they have medical marijuana. As the law now stands, I either have to do without my medicine or take a big risk. That's not a very good choice."
Such stories garner sympathy even in the Bible Belt. According to a 2001 poll conducted by the University of Arkansas, 63% of those surveyed favored legal access to medical marijuana. And Campbell said that number had held steady in more recent polls, as well. "It's about compassion," she said. "You can make your commonsense arguments about wasting taxpayer money to arrest sick people, but it's primarily because people either know someone with cancer or some other serious illness that benefited from using medical marijuana and feel sympathetic, or they just imagine themselves in that situation and want to know that the option is open to them if they want it."
The campaign hasn't yet generated any organized opposition, said Campbell, adding that she hoped it would go largely unnoticed until after the signature-gathering process is complete. "We want to let sleeping dogs lie," she laughed.
In the meantime, the alliance is laying the groundwork for the fall campaign. "We already have some good support, especially in Northwest Arkansas, and we've got state Sen. John Riggs as an advisor and public spokesman in the central part of the state," said Campbell. "While we strong in this corner of the state, we still have a lot of work to do in other parts of Arkansas.
The initiative needs to come up with some 64,000 signatures by July 2 to make the November ballot . The clock is ticking.
Visit http://www.arkansasalliance.org/initiative/ to read the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Initiative online.