Just days before the election and with 142,000 ballots already cast through early voting, the Arkansas Supreme Court has disqualified one of two competing measures to legalize medical cannabis.
Earlier this morning the court sided with opponents of Issue 7, known as the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, in a 5-2 ruling. The judges tossed out 12,000 signatures that had been initially approved, when it was determined that campaign organizers didn’t comply with state law regarding the registration and reporting of paid signature gatherers. With those signatures disqualified, the initiative came up 2,500 signatures shy of the ballot requirement.
Two justices disagreed with the decision. “The people should be permitted to vote on the initiative on November 8, and their votes should be counted,” Interim Chief Justice Howard Brill wrote in a dissenting opinion.
Until this morning, Arkansas voters were offered two very similar proposals to legalize medical cannabis. With Issue 7 disqualified, only votes for and against Issue 6 will be counted.
Advocates and opponents alike were disappointed by the ruling. Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe, who starred in an anti-legalization ad campaign airing in the state, expressed mixed emotions about the decision. “Honestly, at this point in the stage, 12 days before the election, it sounds kind of strange, but I actually kind of wish it would have gone to the voters and let them vote it up or down at this point.”
The ruling comes as a serious blow to the campaign group behind the initiative, Arkansans for Compassionate Care, whose ballot title was approved in 2014. The group spent the last two years gathering signatures in support of the initiative after a similar measure was narrowly defeated in the 2012 general election.
Both medical marijuana proposals have faced serious opposition from state officials. Governor Asa Hutchison, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has spoken out against the measures, and a coalition of lobbying groups tried to disqualify both measures based on the ballot language.
Ryan Denham, the Deputy Director of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, vowed that the group will continue to fight for patients’ rights in spite of the setback. In light of the decision, Arkansans for Compassionate Care urged voters to support both initiatives, including the competing measure that remains on the ballot.
“It’s not easy reversing 80 years of cannabis prohibition. ACC placed a medical cannabis law on the ballot in 2012 and we were narrowly defeated. We came back with an army of volunteers and successfully placed Issue 7 on the ballot.” Denham said, recounting the endless obstacles the campaign has faced. “We’ve been up against many hurdles including the Governor, Attorney General, Surgeon General, a competing campaign and two lawsuits. We will keep fighting, ensure that no patient faces arrest for using a safe and effective medicine, whether that protection comes from Issue 6 or Issue 7.”
David Couch, the leader behind Issue 6, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, is cautiously optimistic about the amendment’s chances now that the competing measure has been ruled out. “It eliminates some of the confusion on which one to vote for,” he said. “If you want to help sick and dying patients in Arkansas, then you have to vote for [Issue 6].”
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