Come Tuesday, one particular issue on the state’s ballot this year could have some Arkansans seeing green.
For the first time in Arkansas, and the South, voters will be able to decide whether or not to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana throughout the state this election year. What was once considered a long-shot by many for the oft-red state is now gaining momentum as Election Day approaches.
But as Arkansas becomes ground zero for marijuana reform in the South, many residents wonder whether the passage of Issue Five is even realistic in the state once known for having some of the strictest drug laws in the U.S.
“Obviously, the South is considered part of the Bible Belt,” said Steven Chen, a law student and former NPR intern. “At first glance, it seems like a medicinal marijuana law would play with the traditional morals and values of the region. But let’s be honest here. According to statistics, it doesn’t look like the disparity is all that great.”
The statistic Chen refers to is one that was published by the New York Times in 2009. According to their survey, roughly 10 percent of Arkansans over the age of 12 admitted to smoking marijuana over the previous year. That number was just shy of the 11.24 percent in California.
The liberalization of Arkansas’s policies on marijuana has become apparent over recent years. Fayetteville and Eureka Springs, two Northwest Arkansas towns, have already made the personal possession of less than an ounce of the drug a non-arrestable offense. This noticeable shift may be attributed, in part, to a growing understanding of marijuana’s medicinal value.
“An important thing to remember,” Chen added, “is that this bill doesn’t legalize all use of marijuana – it’s the ‘Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act,’ meaning that only people who need marijuana for medical purposes can get access to the drug. If you look at the bill itself, the language states that access to marijuana would be limited to an initial list of patients with specific conditions.”
One of these qualifying conditions for access to medical marijuana is Tourette syndrome. University of Arkansas student, Trey Pool, falls into this category.
“I have been taking anxiety medicine since the 7th grade,” Pool said through gritted teeth. “I have seen so many doctors and have been prescribed 22 different medications since I was diagnosed with Tourette’s. Ever since I first found out about marijuana for the medicinal treatment of my disorder, I’ve hoped that it would be given a shot for the people who suffer every day with a disease they can’t control.”
If the act is passed, patients like Pool would be allowed to purchase the drug from a system of regulated, nonprofit dispensaries. He would also be allowed to grow marijuana on his property if it is more than five miles from one of those locations. This would grant him more options when it comes to treating his disease.
“I’ve grown dependent on anxiety medications and I’ve read studies that show that marijuana is not nearly as habit forming. When I wake up every morning and have to shove these different medications down my throat that barely even work, I start to wonder why it is illegal for me to use the one, harmless drug that will.”
According to Chen, patients like Trey Pool stand to gain a lot from the passage of the act. He explained that, because the possession and use of marijuana is illegal, people with medical conditions must obtain the drug on the black market. This comes at the high risk of getting arrested or getting an unregulated, potentially impure substance.
“The people who stand to lose the most,” he said, “are the illegal drug traffickers who stand to lose a large portion of their underground business.”
Because of the lack of risk and broadened availability, the price of marijuana is much cheaper when purchased from a dispensary rather than on the streets. But due to the act’s medicinal restrictions, the demand for weed on the black market would all but disappear.
According to one confessed drug dealer, who has asked to be referred to as Semo Green, business on the streets will continue to be profitable.
“Think about it,” Green explained, using his hands to gesture towards imaginary groups of people. “You’ve got people that are cool with breaking the law and then you’ve got those that’ll cry over a speeding ticket. The folks that are okay with it, they come buy from me. Those others, they never will. If somebody wants, say, pills – hydros, oxys, whatever – and they’re a part of that first group they’ll buy it on the streets. No problem. If someone in that other group wants the same pills, they’re going to the doctor complaining about a bad back or something. So, those folks aren’t even contributing to what’s going on in the dark. I’m not stressing. Hell, I’m voting for it.”
According to the Arkansas Poll, 44 percent of likely voters will also cast their ballot in favor of the measure. Five percent are unsure or unwilling to say.
Regardless of whether or not the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act passes, in Chen’s opinion, the fact that it is even on the ballot is a huge step toward reform in Arkansas and in the South. Its passage would likely prompt neighboring states to pursue similar ballot initiatives.
“It is a bit surprising,” he continued, “considering that Arkansas is the first state in the South to consider this ballot initiative. But then again, you have to start somewhere, right?”