Arkansans for Cannabis Reform is one of two campaigns trying to place an adult-use cannabis legalization initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, and while a recent court ruling allows the group to gather signatures remotely through mail-in petitions, Executive Director Melissa Fults says the campaign is still up against the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest and the recent protests against police brutality in its quest to gather nearly 90,000 signatures by July 3.
“It’s going to be really close,” Fults told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.
A federal judge ruled May 25 that Arkansas’ laws requiring petitions to be signed in person are unconstitutional, which allows Arkansans for Cannabis Reform and other ballot initiative campaigns to collect signatures remotely.
Now, Fults and her team are sending copies of the signature page with self-addressed stamped envelopes to voters, along with a letter telling them where they can read the initiative online. Arkansas voters can also print the signature page on the campaign’s website and mail it in.
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform also has volunteers and paid canvassers out collecting signatures since the state has relaxed some of its restrictions in response to COVID-19, but Fults says most people are afraid to approach petitioners or are afraid to go out altogether.
“[COVID] has stopped events and everything else, and now, with the protests that are going on out there, people don’t want to go out—they’re afraid to,” she said. “But we have a lot of canvassers out there … and they’re working their little hearts out trying to make this happen. All we can do is the best we can do and pray that it’s going to be enough.”
The campaign’s initiative is a proposed constitutional amendment that outlines specific provisions for an adult-use cannabis program.
“We worked really hard to write an amendment that could grow with the program,” Fults said. “With our medical program, it can never grow. … It can have a maximum of 40 dispensaries, a maximum of eight cultivation centers, [and] no home grow. … That’s the maximum—that’s all they can do.”
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform’s proposed amendment took the group nearly a year to write, and allows a minimum of 30 adult-use cannabis dispensaries per congressional district, as well as a minimum of one cultivation center for every 250,000 people, which equates to about 12 growers based on the state’s current population, Fults said. Regulators can then license more dispensaries and cultivators as needed, based on demand.
In addition, whereas Arkansas’ medical cannabis program allows cultivators to grow a maximum of 50 mature plants and 50 seedlings, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform’s adult-use initiative would allow cultivators to grow a minimum of 200 mature plants and 200 seedlings.
The measure also legalizes home grow, allowing adults to cultivate six mature plants and six seedlings.
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform has also outlined where tax revenue generated from adult-use cannabis sales will go. After the costs associated with operating the program are covered, 60% of the leftover revenue will go to pre-K and afterschool programs, prioritizing at-risk children, and the other 40% will support the University of Arkansas’ medical school.
Finally, the constitutional amendment prohibits the legislature from changing certain aspects of the program. The measure specifies that lawmakers must issue adult-use cannabis business licenses within 120 days, and they cannot alter the number of plants grown by businesses or residents, as well as the number of total dispensaries or cultivation centers.
“We have set in place that there are only a very few things that the legislature can change because if you’ve looked at our medical marijuana program, the licenses were supposed to be issued within 120 days, [but] our program finally got up and running two and a half years after the law was passed,” Fults said. “That is unacceptable. … So, the things that are critical that they would reduce or take away, we’ve tied their hands—they cannot do that.”
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform received funds in February to hire paid canvassers, but just weeks later, the coronavirus crisis reached the U.S. and stalled the campaign’s signature gathering efforts.
“If we don’t send the letters out with the self-addressed stamped envelopes and the signature pages, it’ll be tough, and it’ll even be tough with that,” Fults said. “The world kind of got in the way. We have so many things going on right now, between the pandemic, the political unrest [and] the protests because of police brutality. I mean, there is just a multitude of things. … It’s scary.”
Arkansas True Grass, a group looking to bring a competing adult-use cannabis legalization measure to this year’s ballot, has faced similar struggles.
The group recently announced that it would abandon efforts to qualify its proposed constitutional amendment for the 2020 ballot, instead focusing on 2022. Then, days later, following the federal court ruling, the campaign changed course and renewed its efforts to qualify the measure for the November election.
“We're going to keep trying for it, and if we fail, we have 2022 as a backup,” Briana Boling, one of the campaign’s organizers, told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Fults said if Arkansans for Cannabis Reform can collect enough signatures in the next month through its mail-in petitions and in-person canvassing efforts to get the issue in front of voters this fall, she is confident that it will pass this year.
“If it’s on the ballot, it will pass,” she said.