Analysis: Setback for medical pot push in Arkansas

Associated PressJuly 13, 2014 

— In 2012, by the slimmest of margins, Arkansas missed being the first state in the South to legalize medical marijuana — less than 2 percent. Nearly two years later, another push to legalize the drug failed to even muster enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

It'd be easy to call this a sign that the uphill battle to legalize medical marijuana had already hit its peak in a Bible Belt state where nearly half the counties still ban alcohol sales. But supporters of the measure insist a combination of other factors stymied their efforts this time.

Arkansans for Compassionate Care announced last week that it had gathered only 51,000 signatures in its attempt to place the issue on the ballot. The group needed 62,507.

It was a major setback for a group that drew the support of advocates such as television host Montel Williams and garnered as much national attention as the fight for control of the state Legislature. Despite facing opposition from law enforcement, business and conservative groups, the proposal garnered nearly 49 percent of the vote.

Opponents of the measure could hardly contain their glee at the announcement, calling it a sign that medical marijuana was effectively dead as an issue in Arkansas.

"We are pleased to learn Arkansans have rejected the legalization of marijuana once again," Jerry Cox, head of the Family Council, said in a statement sent out hours after pro-legalization supporters said they didn't have the signatures. "Voters made a decision on that issue two years ago. The fact that the measure failed to get enough signatures to make it to the ballot tells me Arkansans are standing by that decision."

But it may not be that simple. The campaign for legalizing medical marijuana faced several obstacles that weren't present during its successful signature-gathering effort in 2012 that led to voters narrowly rejecting the proposal. They included a narrow window for gathering signatures and a run of bad weather that hindered collecting, they said.

"There was a never a lack of people wanting to sign," said Melissa Fults, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care.

They included competing marijuana legalization proposals, such as one spearheaded by a former official with Arkansans for Compassionate Care that also would have legalized marijuana for certain medical conditions. Another would have gone a step further, legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use.

The group also didn't have the boost of national legalization supporters which had aided in its 2012 bid. The Marijuana Policy Project, which had spent hundreds of thousands on the Arkansas medical marijuana proposal two years ago, didn't get involved in the proposal this year.

"In a state where the margin is that narrow for approval, we generally will only run ballot initiatives in presidential election years," said Morgan Fox, the project's spokesman.

Fox said his group hasn't ruled out the possibility of backing medical marijuana in Arkansas again, and said it believes it's still an idea that can gain support in the area. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently allow medical marijuana.

Fults said her group is now shifting its focus to getting medical marijuana on the ballot in 2016, a year that will feature a presidential election and another potentially high-profile expensive Senate race. She said they're trying to learn from this year's experience by spending the coming months building up a more extensive base of volunteers to work on signature gathering ahead of the 2016 campaign.

"We're here for the long haul," Fults said. "We're not going to walk away."

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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