Could Arkansas 'Go Green?'

The past few years have been vitally important for supporters of legalizing marijuana. Both Colorado and Washington passed bills allowing legal recreational marijuana use in 2012 and public approval for legalization jumped above 50 percent in 2013. Sales began Jan. 1 of 2014 in Colorado and are due to start later this year in Washington. Twenty states as well as the District of Columbia already have medical marijuana laws. Alaskan voters will have their say on legalization for recreational use this summer. Oregon voters could also vote on the issue this year. In California, drug-reform groups are deciding whether to push a ballot measure in 2014 or wait until the 2016 presidential election. And now, there is a push to put a medical marijuana bill on the 2014 ballot in Arkansas.
President Barack Obama recently told The New Yorker magazine that he considers marijuana less dangerous to consumers than alcohol and emphasized the importance of the legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado. Obama's administration has criticized drug war driven incarceration rates in the U.S. and announced that it will allow banks to do business with licensed marijuana operations. Previously, these operations have been largely cash-only because federal law forbids financial institutions from processing marijuana-related transactions.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced in 2009 that it wouldn't target medical marijuana patients. In August of 2013, the agency stated that they wouldn't interfere with the laws in Colorado and Washington, which regulate the growth and sale of taxed pot for recreational use.
Public opinion has changed drastically. In October of 2013, a gallup pole showed that for the first time, a clear majority of Americans, 58 percent, said that marijuana should be legalized. Only 39 percent opposed legalization. This is a drastic change from when the first gallup pole was taken on the issue in 1969 when only 12 percent favored legalization. 38 percent of Americans admitted to having tried marijuana last year, which may be a contributing factor to greater acceptance.
With swelling public approval, is legalized medical marijuana on the horizon in Arkansas? There are two chances to add medical marijuana to the November 2014 ballot. The first comes from the Arkansans for Responsible Medicine group. They have until July 7, 2014 to collect 62,507 signatures for registered Arkansas voters in order to quality its proposed initiative for the November ballot. Under the proposal, a patient with a doctor's certification that he or she suffers from a malady included on a list of conditions that might be helped by marijuana could purchase the drug from dispensaries. The proposal prohibits people from growing their own marijuana. The sale of marijuana would be subject to all state and local taxes and all the taxes collected would be distributed evenly among the Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood Bank, a newly created Arkansas Historic Preservation Fund, the Public Health Fund, and the Behavioral Health Services Account Fund. The ballot title is "The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act."
A second proposal comes from the Arkansans for Compassionate Care. This group was successful in 2012 of getting its proposal on the ballot, but it was rejected by voters. 507,757 people voted for the issue, which totaled 48.56 percent of the vote. 537,898 voters voted against the issue, totaling 51.44 percent of the vote. With an amended version of their proposed act, the Arkansans for Compassionate Care hope to receive enough signatures to put forth their initiative again. This initiative allows dispensaries but also allows a patient to grow their own marijuana limited to six plants with no more than three in flower. Patients and caregivers wanting to grow at home would have to apply for "Hardship Cultivation Certificates." The proposal does not outline what would qualify an individual for that license, leaving the decision to the state health department. The same number of signatures are needed for this initiative to end up on the ballot and will be called "The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act."
David Couch, head of Arkansans for Responsible Medicine, said that he wrote his proposal without home cultivation after polling showed that as many as 20 percent of "no" votes in 2012 came from people who said they would have voted for the bill if it had limited marijuana cultivation to dispensaries only.
So what are the benefits and risks of medical marijuana?
Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD stated in a 2004 editorial in Providence Journal that, "The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS -- or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them. And it can do so with remarkable safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day."
However, not everyone is so confident. Elin Kondrad, MD, Medical Director for the Family Medicine Center at the St. Anthony Family Medicine Residency, and Alfred O. Reid, MA, Assistant Professor and Director of Information and Research Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published a study in Jan/Feb of 2013 in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine titled "Colorado Family Physicians' Attitudes Towards Medical Marijuana." In the study, they stated, "Despite a high prevalence of use in Colorado, most family physicians are not convinced of marijuana's health benefits and believe its use carries risks. Nearly all agreed on the need for further medical education about medical marijuana..." Kondrad and Reid distributed an online survey to the 1727 members of the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians in January of 2011. The survey had a 30 percent response rate and of the physicians surveyed only 31 percent reported ever recommending medical marijuana to a patient.
According to the study, "Of responding physicians, 46 percent said that physicians should not recommend marijuana as a medial therapy at all; 19 percent agreed that physicians should recommend medical marijuana. When asked about benefits of marijuana use, 27 percent of those surveyed agreed that there were significant physical health benefits, while 41 percent disagreed. Fifteen percent agreed that there were significant mental health benefits, while 54 percent disagreed."
On Feb. 27, representatives will be at the Bryant Library from 6-7:45 p.m. to discuss the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. It is an opportunity for anyone to learn what the act does and doesn't do for Arkansas as well as gives residents an opportunity to sign the petition if interested.

Bobbye Pyke, a reporter for the Saline Courier. She can be reached at