Medical marijuana heads to Arkansas ballots as proposal clears legal hurdle

Cannabis laws are trending more permissive across the United States, even as the federal government continues to reject calls to legalize it for medical applications.

Scott Sonner/ AP/ File
In this July 31, 2015, file photo, people line up to be among the first in Nevada to legally purchase medical marijuana at the Silver State Relief dispensary in Sparks, Nev. On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that the state's voters can cast their ballot this November on a measure to allow sales of medical marijuana.

At least one medical marijuana proposal will make it onto ballots in Arkansas this November, after the state's Supreme Court sided Thursday with supporters of a pro-cannabis constitutional amendment.

The measure, which would permit patients with certain diagnosed conditions to buy marijuana from designated dispensaries, has faced opposition from groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Farm Bureau, as well as Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R). Opponents had asked the court to block officials from counting any votes on the marijuana proposal.

"It is a flawed measure that hurts Arkansans," Jerry Cox, the executive director of the Family Council Action Committee, told the Associated Press, noting that his organization still plans to campaign against the proposed amendment.

The debate comes as a majority of American adults, 57 percent, say marijuana should be legalized, while 37 percent say it should be illegal, as the Pew Research Center reported Wednesday. A decade ago, less than one-third of Americans favored legalization.

Half of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico, have legalized marijuana in one form or another, and nine will vote this November on measures to create or expand its legal status, Pew noted.

The federal government, however, declined again this year to approve any medicinal applications for the drug, keeping it classified as Schedule I, the same category as cocaine or heroin, as The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Granting any substance the distinction of "medicine" is a complex process, and the [Food and Drug Administration] does not approve entire plants for use by the American medical community. What is more likely is that, after the newly opened research runs its course, scientists with the FDA would allow doctors to prescribe strains and compounds derived from the plant to treat specific conditions.

"The FDA is not going to approve cannibis generically. That would be silly," says Mark Kleiman, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who specializes in drug abuse policy. " 'Blow some weed' is not medicine."

In Arkansas, the state Supreme Court ruled that the justices had been inappropriately asked to overstep their bounds to interpret the content of the proposed amendment. Additionally, the language of the measure need not address every detail of the proposed amendment, Associate Justice Courtney Hudson wrote.

"We conclude that while inside the voting booth, the voters will be able to reach an intelligent and informed decision for or against The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016," she wrote.

In addition to the proposal green-lighted by the justices Thursday, there is a second medical marijuana proposal for the state's Nov. 8 ballot. It would allow patients to grow their own marijuana if they live far away from a dispensary, but it is the subject of a lawsuit questioning the signatures submitted to qualify it as a ballot initiative.

Four years ago, Arkansas voters narrowly rejected another  medical marijuana proposal. The group behind the now-OK'd proposal, Arkansans United for Medical Marijuana, said it plans to move forward with TV and radio advertisements.

But this year there are even more obstacles than last time. Governor Hutchinson, a Republican who used to head the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, has publicly opposed the measures, and the state's Democratic party has kept quiet, despite supporting medical marijuana in its platform. 

In addition to Arkansas, voters in Florida and North Dakota will consider this year whether to permit medical marijuana, and Montana will decide whether to loosen restrictions on its existing program.

Five other states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada – will consider legalizing pot for recreational uses.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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