Facing a shortage of funding and unforeseen circumstances stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, two groups that hoped to place adult-use cannabis legalization initiatives on Arkansas’ 2020 ballot have refocused their efforts on the 2022 election.
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform and Arkansas True Grass had to gather nearly 90,000 signatures by July 3 to get their proposed constitutional amendments before voters this fall, but the feat proved too much once the coronavirus crisis descended on the U.S. this past spring.
“Without enough funding and with the COVID, it just went south real quick,” Arkansans for Cannabis Reform Executive Director Melissa Fults told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary, adding that the group managed to collect roughly 35,000 signatures before the deadline.
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform had been relying on mail-in petitions after a judge ruled in May that ballot initiative campaigns could gather signatures remotely, but the state’s attorney general filed an appeal, and an appeals court placed a stay on the original ruling until the case is heard.
“Once they put out that stay, we were done,” Fults said. “There was no option for us.”
The campaign’s proposed constitutional amendment would have allowed 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. Cultivators would have been able to grow a minimum of 200 mature plants and 200 seedlings, and regulators would have been authorized to license more businesses as needed, based on demand.
The measure would have also legalized home grow, allowing adults to cultivate up to six mature plants and six seedlings.
After the costs associated with operating the program were covered, the measure would have directed the remaining tax revenue generated from adult-use cannabis sales to support pre-K and afterschool programs, as well as the University of Arkansas’ medical school.
Now, the campaign is evaluating where to go from here. When the legislature reconvenes in January, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform plans to lobby for a decriminalization law. In addition, Fults said another group, made up of attorneys and other stakeholders, has invited her to join them in drafting a new legalization measure for the 2022 ballot.
“If they come up with something that everyone can live with and that is fair to both consumers and the businesses, we’ll get on board and we’ll support it and we’ll push the ballot initiative,” she said. “If not, then we won’t. I’m not going to support a monopoly or one that has no chance of passing.”
Arkansas True Grass has also shifted its efforts to 2022, and has already collected a few hundred signatures to place its proposed constitutional amendment before voters in that election.
“Our amendment is still the same as it was before and it’s very lenient—for the people, by the people,” campaign organizer Briana Boling said.
The measure would allow adults 21 and older to grow up to 12 plants of any stage at home, and adults who have lived in Arkansas for a minimum of three years can apply for business licenses, which would be issued to an unlimited number of cultivation operations and dispensaries. Cultivation licenses would cost no more than $250 annually under the measure, and dispensary licenses would cost no more than $500.
Arkansas True Grass is continuing to collect in-person signatures while awaiting the court’s decision on whether they can resume collecting signatures remotely, but Boling said many are wary of being approached in public during the ongoing pandemic, and the cancellation of large events and public gatherings has made signature gathering more challenging in recent months.
Still, Boling is confident that her group can get its legalization measure in front of voters in 2022, even without mail-in petitions.
“Support is here,” she said. “The more people that hear about it, the more volunteers we get. Our Facebook group has 17,000 members, and in January, it only had 12,000 members, so we’re steadily increasing in numbers. I’ve been out on the street asking people to sign the petition, and ‘yes’ is way more common than ‘no.’"