A vote to legalize marijuana in Arkansas is a “vote to support our police,” according to a new ad from a campaign seeking to promote its cannabis initiative that will appear on the November ballot.
The measure from Responsible Growth Arkansas is still under review by the state Supreme Court, which will ultimately determine whether votes can be counted even though the initiative met the signature requirements for ballot placement.
But in the meantime, the campaign has released an ad that focuses on how the proposal would allocate a sizable portion of marijuana tax revenue to law enforcement.
“We all know that funding and supporting the police is important,” the ad says.
“Our brave men and women in law enforcement deserve our support. You can vote to support our law enforcement by voting for Issue 4 this election. Issue 4 will safely legalize the sale of cannabis to adults 21 and older, and creates revenue that goes to more funding for local police departments, more funding for protecting our communities, more funding for safer streets.”
“A vote for Issue 4 is a vote to support our police,” it concludes.
The idea of linking legalization to improved public safety is nothing new. Numerous campaigns and lawmakers have made the same argument as they’ve pushed for reform across the country. But this ad puts the law enforcement angle front and center, which isn’t exactly sitting well with some advocates.
To be sure, many have argued that spending taxpayer dollars to support police enforcement against people who use cannabis is both economically wasteful and a misallocation of resources during a time when people want to see law enforcement tackle serious crimes.
Even U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made that point during his confirmation proceedings, saying he didn’t feel it was a proper use of Justice Department funds to go after people acting in compliance with state cannabis laws.
But Responsible Growth Arkansas is making the police funding component of their proposal a centerpiece, drawing some criticism from advocates who feel marijuana tax shouldn’t go to the very institutions that have historically perpetuated the drug war.
“Messaging aside, cannabis tax revenue shouldn’t be going to police, period,” Parabola Center’s Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis regulator, told Marijuana Moment.
Then again, in a conservative state like Arkansas, the campaign ad’s messaging may resonate more effectively than in traditionally liberal states where police funding has generally proved more controversial.
Lance Huey, a former Arkansas State Police trooper and Grant County Sheriff, is a petitioner with the legalization campaign. He said in a press release that “one of the questions that everybody always asks, or statements that people make to me, [is] I just wish they would legalize it and tax it and use the money for the common good.”
Under the proposal, 15 percent of adult-use marijuana sale tax revenue would go to law enforcement. Huey said that’s an important provision because of police department retention problems, with departments struggling to maintain their workforces because of limited funding.
“To have something here that is not just one time funding—this is dedicated, yearly funding to help the bigger departments, the smaller departments—it helps everyone,” he said.
While the campaign turned in more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, the state Board of Election Commissioners voted against certifying the measure earlier this month, arguing that the ballot title and summary is misleading. That prompted petitioners to file suit with the state Supreme Court to settle the matter.
As an interim step, the court did order the state to certify the legalization initiative, so it will appear on the ballot. But as the case enters the merits phase, there’s an open question as to whether any votes will ultimately be counted even if a majority of the electorate approves it.
The new police-focused ad also seems responsive to recent comments from Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who previously headed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
He spoke about the reform proposal this month at the Arkansas Municipal Police Association Convention, imploring police to “stand firm” in their opposition to the legalization proposal, and officers should prepare themselves for the cannabis policy debate.
The governor told police convention attendees that Responsible Growth Arkansas is “going to sell this as something that’s going to help law enforcement,” in part because the initiative calls for certain percentages of tax revenue from marijuana sales to support police departments and drug courts. “And so, once again, they’re selling a harmful drug to the citizens of Arkansas based upon promises that looks good.”
Evidently, in light of the new ad, he wasn’t wrong.
Additional marijuana tax-funding aside, a 2018 study did find that police clearance rates—a figure that represents the number of crimes that resulted in an arrest divided by the total number of reported crimes—increased in Colorado and Washington State post-legalization.
Meanwhile, an Arkansas police chief and attorney recently formed a political committee called Save Arkansas from Epidemic with the intent of opposing the legalization bid, and the state Supreme Court has allowed the committee to intervene in the case.
Kevin Sabet of the national prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) submitted an affidavit in the case against the reform measure. A second prohibitionist group, Safe and Secure Communities, was also granted the opportunity to weigh in on the case and submit a brief expressing their opposition to the policy change.
This week, the Arkansas attorney general’s office also filed a brief in the case, agreeing with the elections board that the ballot summary and title is affirmatively misleading to voters.
There are also several longtime activists in the state who are against the proposed initiative because they feel it unfairly tilts the scales, with excessive regulations that they feel would make the adult-use market uncompetitive and benefit a small pool of stakeholders.
The court system has become a consistent source of frustration for cannabis reform advocates in recent election cycles, with several efforts blocked following legal challenges, including some that focused on single subject rules.
Activists in several states found themselves defending voter-approved reform measures in court surrounding the 2020 election. Campaigns faced litigation over successful marijuana initiatives in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota, for example, with varying results.
In Missouri, another legal battle is playing out in the court, with an anti-legalization resident filing a lawsuit backed by the Colorado-based Protect Our Kids PAC that’s asking the court to remove the certified marijuana measure from the 2022 ballot because, they allege, signatures were erroneously counted and the initiative violates the state Constitution’s single subject rule.
Here’s what the Arkansas campaign’s marijuana legalization initiative would accomplish:
-Adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis from licensed retailers.
-Home cultivation would not be allowed.
-The measure would make a series of changes to the state’s existing medical cannabis program that was approved by voters in 2016, including a repeal of residency requirements to qualify as a patient in the state.
-The state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Division of the Department of Finance and Administration would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.
-Regulators would need to license existing medical cannabis dispensaries to also serve adult consumers, and also permit them to open another retail location for recreational marijuana sales only. A lottery system would award licenses for 40 additional adult-use retailers.
-There are no provisions to expunge or seal past criminal records for marijuana or to provide specific social equity licensing opportunities for people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.
-The state could impose up to a 10 percent supplemental tax on recreational cannabis sales, in addition to the existing state and local sales tax.
-Tax revenue would be divided up between law enforcement (15 percent), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (10 percent) and the state drug court program (five percent). The remaining revenue would go to the state general fund.
-People who own less than five percent of a marijuana businesses would no longer be subject to background checks.
-The legislature could not repeal of amend the state’s medical marijuana statutes without voter approval.
-Local governments could hold elections to prohibit adult-use retailers in their jurisdiction if voters approve the decision.
-Individuals could now own stake in more than 18 dispensaries.
-There would be advertising and packaging restrictions, including a requirement that marijuana products must be sold in tamper-resistant packages.
-Dispensaries would be able to cultivate and store up to 100 seedings, instead of 50 as prescribed under the current medical cannabis law.
A former Arkansas Democratic House minority leader, Eddie Armstrong, is behind the Responsible Growth Arkansas constitutional amendment, which he filed in January.
The group is just one of several campaigns that have pursued cannabis reform through the ballot this year, though backers of competing initiatives have since acknowledged they wouldn’t be able to collect enough signatures to qualify this year.
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Supporters of the separate campaigns, Arkansas True Grass and Arkansans for Marijuana Reform, have raised concerns with the provisions of the Responsible Growth Arkansas initiative, suggesting it would favor big businesses in the existing medical cannabis industry. Some have said they may look to 2024 to try again with their own approaches.
Stephen Lancaster, a spokesperson for Responsible Growth Arkansas, previously told Marijuana Moment that the campaign hopes that won’t be necessary. His campaign feels that the constitutional amendment provides a sound infrastructure for reform that prioritizes regulations—and the plan is to push for further reforms in the legislature if voters approve legalization at the polls. That would include efforts to promote expungements, which isn’t addressed by the initiative.
Meanwhile, a poll released in February found that 54 percent of Arkansans favor full adult-use legalization, compared to 32 percent who said it should be legal for medical use only and just around 11 percent who said it should be outright illegal.
Arkansas is also not the only state where voters could see drug policy reform measures on their November ballots:
In North Dakota, voters will have the chance to decide on marijuana legalization at the ballot this November, the secretary of state’s office confirmed. Legalization will also appear on the ballot in neighboring South Dakota.
Last week, Oklahoma officials certified that activists have collected enough valid signatures to place a marijuana legalization initiative before voters. But the measure may not end up on this November’s ballot as planned, because there are still additional formalities the proposal needs to go through as state deadlines to print voting materials approach.
Maryland elections officials have finalized the language for a marijuana legalization referendum that lawmakers placed on the November ballot, and have issued a formal summary of the reform proposal.
Missouri’s secretary of state announced earlier this month that activists had turned in enough signatures to put marijuana legalization on the state’s November ballot.
Nebraska lawmakers and advocates are considering new paths forward for marijuana reform—including pursuing recreational legalization on the 2024 ballot or convening a special legislative session to pass medical cannabis in the interim—after state officials announced that a medically focused reform campaign had come up short on signatures to put their measures before voters this year. Officials have since said that they will be conducting another review of the signatures for the Nebraska measures.
Michigan activists announced in June that they will no longer be pursuing a statewide psychedelics legalization ballot initiative for this year’s election and will instead focus on qualifying the measure to go before voters in 2024.
The campaign behind an effort to decriminalize drugs and expand treatment and recovery services in Washington State said in June that it has halted its push to qualify an initiative for November’s ballot.
While Wyoming activists said earlier this year that they made solid progress in collecting signatures for a pair of ballot initiatives to decriminalize marijuana possession and legalize medical cannabis, they didn’t get enough to make the 2022 ballot deadline and will be aiming for 2024 while simultaneously pushing the legislature to advance reform even sooner.
In March, California activists announced that they came up short on collecting enough signatures to qualify a measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for the state’s November ballot, though they aren’t giving up on a future election cycle bid.
An effort to put adult-use legalization on the statewide ballot in Ohio fizzled out this year, but the campaign did secure a procedural legal win that will allow them to hit the ground running for a planned 2023 reform initiative.
Locally, Ohio voters in at least seven cities will get a chance to join many of their neighboring jurisdictions in enacting local marijuana decriminalization at the ballot this November.
Voters in five Texas cities will also vote on local cannabis decriminalization measures this year.
Advocates have also worked to place local decriminalization ordinances on the ballot in West Virginia.
Wisconsin voters in at least half a dozen cities and counties will also be asked on November’s ballot whether they support legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol. Those Wisconsin advisory questions will be non-binding, however, and are intended to take the temperature of voters and send a message to lawmakers about where their constituents stand.