Arkansas Supreme Court keeps medical marijuana act on the ballot, rejects casino amendment (Updated)

Oct 14, 2016

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment survived an Arkansas Supreme Court challenge in an opinion issued Thursday, but the court pulled an amendment that would allow casino operations in three Arkansas counties.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment would amend the Arkansas constitution to legalize physician-certified medical marijuana in Arkansas. The amendment would limit the number of marijuana dispensaries in the state to 40 and would give the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division inspection authority over the dispensaries.

Part of the argument was that the ballot title did not sufficiently warn voters of issues with medical marijuana users in the workplace.

Associate Justice Courtney Henry Goodson, who wrote the opinion denying the act be removed from the ballot, rejected the workplace argument.

“In sum, the petitioner maintains that the ballot title is insufficient and misleading for omitting these matters, which she contends would, if disclosed, give the voters serious ground for reflection. We disagree. In fact, the ballot title informs the voters that certain persons will not be subject to ‘forms of discrimination’ for engaging in the medical use of marijuana,” Goodson wrote.

Goodson concluded her opinion with this statement: “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 2076. Therefore, we deny the petition.”

Arkansas’ Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe said he believes Arkansas voters will ultimately reject the medical marijuana proposals.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed. We respect the Court’s decision, and it doesn’t change our strategy in any way. We’re still very actively involved in going around the state and explaining to people why we believe these measures are bad for the state, and we’re seeing some benefit from that. We’ve had a number of people who’ve not only been supportive of what we’re doing but actually going public with it with some of the press conferences that we’ve had, so we’re optimistic in spite of the Court’s decision that people are going to look at this on the ballot and vote in our direction.”

David Couch, sponsor of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, said he had thought the ballot title would survive the challenge because it was similar to the title that had been on the ballot in 2012. Also encouraging was the ruling Sept. 22 by the Supreme Court in favor of the ballot title of the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, a similar proposed initiated act also to be decided by voters this year. He said three of the five points raised against the amendment had already been raised in that first decision.

“We can start our campaign now,” he said.

Arkansans narrowly rejected a medical marijuana act in 2012, 51-49%. Couch said his group would start filming commercials Friday and would have a presence on social media, television and radio. He said he didn’t know what the advertising budget would be and it’s not his decision, but the 2012 campaign spent $400,000.

“I think that’s about what you need to spend to this point in time,” he said.

He expressed optimism that the effort will be successful, saying, “We got so close in 2012, and I think we should get over the hump in 2016.”

The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act still faces one legal hurdle, a lawsuit regarding the signature gathering process, Kara L. Benca  vs. Mark Martin. That suit was funded at least in part by backers of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment. Final briefs were due Thursday.

Issue 5 would create a constitutional amendment authorizing the building of one casino each in Washington County, Miller County and Boone County. The casinos would be required to pay the state 18% of their net and would pay 1.5% to the city where they are located and 0.5% to their local counties. An Arkansas Gaming Commission would regulate.

Associate Justice Karen Baker said the amendment fails to inform voters of a potential conflict with federal law. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act prevents states from allowing sports gambling. Issue 5 contains language allowing casino operations in the three counties to “accept wagers on sporting events or other events.”

Baker cited this is a fatal flaw.

“Accordingly, the Amendment’s language clearly conflicts with federal law that prohibits sports gambling in Arkansas. Yet the ballot title does not inform the voters that the Amendment violates federal law,” Baker noted.

Continuing, she wrote: “The ballot title in this case does not honestly and accurately reflect what is contained in the proposed Amendment. Therefore, we conclude that this omission is significant to the Amendment. The voters are entitled to a ballot title that is honest, impartial, and intelligible and will give them a fair understanding of the issues presented.”

The amendment was already in jeopardy because of signature issues. A recent report from former Judge John Jennings listed a number of errors in the signature collection process by Arkansas Wins in 2016’ paid canvasser, National Ballot Access. Jennings had been appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to submit a report in the case that was filed against Martin by Chuck Lange and Bill Walmsley, individually and on behalf of the Committee to Protect Arkansas’ Values/Stop Casinos Now.

Robert Coon, with Arkansas Wins in 2016, said the court has blocked a vote on an issue that collected more than 100,000 signatures.

“Our campaign is disappointed in the court’s decision today. Most importantly, it’s a shame that the voters of Arkansas, including the more than 100,000 that signed our petitions, are being denied the opportunity to vote on an amendment that would create thousands of jobs and more than $120 million in new tax revenue for the state and local communities.”

Chuck Lange, chairman of Protect Arkansas Values, the group opposing the casino amendment, said the court simply defended “the integrity of our Constitution.”

“It was clear from the beginning that these two characters from Missouri teamed up with the Cherokee Indian Tribe from Oklahoma to rig the Arkansas Constitution for their own personal benefit. They wrote into the amendment the specific names of their companies in a brazen attempt to monopolize gaming expansion in Arkansas. And, they attempted to deceive Arkansas voters into believing that sports betting would be legal in Arkansas and that caused this amendment to be rejected by the court.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday morning he was happy with the court’s ruling on the casino amendment. He also commented on the court removing the tort reform amendment from the ballot.

“I was not in favor of the casino amendment, so I guess in some ways that is good news. I was neutral on the tort reform amendment, but there is always some disappointment whenever the people don’t have an opportunity to vote on it, but it teaches you the importance of getting it right, both in terms of the signatures and the ballot title to be the most informative to the voters. So I respect the decision of the courts on the ballot initiatives.”


Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note that The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment was the focus of the court’s Thursday ruling. Story has also been updated to add reaction to medical marijuana ruling.