After a long struggle to gather enough signatures by July 3, the push in Arkansas to get adult use cannabis legalization on the ballot is over—for now. COVID-19 all but put an end to the types of gatherings where petitioners typically collect signatures, and a legal conflict over the signature-gathering process only added to the challenges.
“We’re not going to make the ballot. COVID-19 killed it,” said Melissa Fults, executive director of Arkansans for Cannabis Reform. Fults told Cannabis Wire that at their last count, they have between 30,000-40,000 signatures, but would have needed over 89,000 for the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment to qualify for the ballot. “It was just one of those years,” Fults said. “That’s all I can say is, it was just one of those years, unfortunately.”
The campaign announced in a Facebook post last Saturday that legalization would not be on the 2020 ballot and they cited COVID-19, as well as a lack of funding and volunteer participation, as contributing factors. Fults told Cannabis Wire that because many of the campaign volunteers were medical cannabis patients, she discouraged them from being in public, worried that any underlying health conditions would put volunteers at a higher risk.
“I couldn’t have them out there and take the risk of one of them contracting it and getting deathly ill and dying,” she said.
The constitutional amendment would have legalized the use of cannabis for adults 21 or older, including limited home cultivation. It would have authorized the Alcohol Beverage Control Division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration to regulate the program and to license at least one commercial retail establishment per county in the state. And it would have directed tax funds to early education and after school programs, and to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Medical cannabis was legalized in 2016 in Arkansas, but the first dispensary didn’t open until 2019. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and state Senator Cecile Bledsoe have lent their support to a campaign opposing adult-use cannabis called “Just Don’t Sign.” They did not respond to Cannabis Wire’s requests for comment.
“It is a very conservative state. Our legislature is very conservative,” said Fults. “However, the people support it. They support it within reason. They want rules and regulations and they don’t want to walk outside and their neighbor has a yard full of plants growing.”
Arkansans for Cannabis Reform is an initiative led by the Drug Policy Education Group, a nonprofit that also campaigned for a second ballot amendment this year that would have expunged some cannabis-related convictions.
Also hampering the campaign’s efforts were ongoing changes to the signature-gathering process in the wake of COVID-19. After a number of campaigns suspended in-person signature collection due to health concerns, one group, Arkansas Voters First, filed a lawsuit on April 22 that would lift certain signature gathering requirements, like requiring a witness, notarization, and in-person signature.
U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes temporarily waived these restrictions through a preliminary injunction, which allowed campaigns, including Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, to collect signatures remotely, including by mail. The state appealed the ruling, and in the meantime, the less restrictive rules for signature collection are on hold, but the lawsuit is ongoing. The changing legal predicament made it more difficult for Fults and her team to collect signatures.
According to the campaign’s Facebook post and Fults, the’ Drug Policy Education Group is shifting its focus to opposing Issue 3 on the November 2020 ballot, which places significant restrictions on the process by which citizen-initiated initiatives, referenda, and constitutional amendments are submitted and approved.
Fults says she and other campaigners plan to join forces with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML, to support a campaign for adult-use next year.