People vs. Profits: Inside the Dueling Arkansas Medical Cannabis Efforts

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This year marks the 20th anniversary since the passage of the nation’s first medical cannabis law, Proposition 215 in California. The 2016 election is unusual for many reasons and as far as cannabis is concerned, this election looks like the one that will tip the scale towards a majority of Americans having some legal access to cannabis.

For the first time ever during a presidential election, a large swath of the electorate in places like California have simply never experienced full prohibition, accept the medical utility of cannabis and overwhelmingly believe it should be legal for all reasons. Yet, in the rest of the country it’s like none of it ever happened.

Arkansas is one of those states. The Natural State has some of the nation’s harshest penalties for cannabis crimes. Possession of under four ounces can lead to a felony record, six years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

After over seven years of effort, brave patients and grassroots organizations like Arkansans for Compassionate Care (ACC) worked through the strong anti-cannabis rhetoric coming out of the highly-religious state and succeeded at placing the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act (AMCA) on the ballot this June. One month later, another pro-cannabis pro-business group had their medical cannabis initiative, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment (AMMA), qualify for the ballot too.

Betrayal From Within

In a shocking move, an attorney affiliated with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), filed suit to disqualify the grassroots initiative.

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NORML has yet to endorse an initiative but will likely do so later this month. No one is quite sure what happens if they both pass.

“When a state like Arkansas goes from zero medical cannabis laws to potentially having to sort out two of them, people take notice– and they take sides,” says Corey Hunt, co-founder of Illegally Healed, Arkansas resident and AMCA proponent.

The majority of Arkansans want medical cannabis to be available to sick patients, although there is no specific polling yet on just “how” they want the law to look. But with two groups both in favor of legalizing medical cannabis but in opposition to one another, there is sure to be confusion at the ballot box.

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So what is the difference between the AMCA (named Issue 7) and the AMMA (named Issue 6) and what influence are national organizations like NORML having on the ground?

What’s In a Name?

The first and most notable difference between the two measures are the titles and the connotations behind them. The AMCA refers to the plant as “cannabis” while the AMMA uses the word “marijuana”.

The word “cannabis” is the scientifically correct term to refer to plants in the cannabis genus, which includes the Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis ruderalis species, under which are many subspecies, or “strains”. All strains used for food or fiber are traditionally referred to as “hemp” and those bred primarily for their potent resinous flowers are referred to as “marijuana.”

The difference is often more a matter of legality than taxonomy but the use of the word “marijuana” also has a racist history, which is why most medical cannabis advocates have taken to using the scientifically correct term “cannabis”. Although the United States government legally uses the term “marijuana”, by using the term “cannabis” the AMCA is taking the stance that science, not emotion and history, should dictate the terminology.

The ideological views inherent in the etymology are stark. Under the guise that “marijuana is a dangerous drug” rather than the “safe and non-toxic cannabis plant”, a demand for heavy regulation and revenue-positive legislation becomes necessary by design.

“It is going to be consuming, and as someone said, a ‘nightmarish’ enterprise to pass the laws to regulate this and for our state not to be consumed by this,” Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told The Sentinel Record.

Hutchinson went on to say he opposes both measures, primarily due to the enormous cost of creating and enforcing regulations. Gov. Hutchinson’s stance is unsurprising because he is quite familiar with the massive budgets required to enforce drug laws. Hutchinson is the former chief  administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who oversaw the 2002 crackdown on state-legal medical cannabis in the San Francisco Bay Area and prosecution of cannabis cultivation author Ed Rosenthal. He is also quite familiar with how fast public opinion changed in California 20 years ago when the plant was reintroduced to mainstream society.

This Just Isn’t NORML

Local chapters affiliated with the national organization are run independently. National NORML provides consumers with state-by-state legal information and a directory of pro-cannabis attorneys who pay them to advertise their services, among other functions. Kara Benca is one of those attorneys.

Benca joined NORML in 2007 and on their legal directory claims 50 percent of her business is criminal defense for marijuana crimes. Her pro-cannabis stance is why Arkansas cannabis advocates were shocked to learn Benca had filed a lawsuit with the state supreme court attempting to disqualify the grassroots effort, the AMCA.

The suit seeks to invalidate over 15,000 of the AMCA’s ballot-qualifying signatures and is the second filed against the campaign, the first by a group called Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana, which is fundamentally opposed to cannabis use for any reason.

According to Marijuana.com, David Couch, the Little Rock attorney behind the competing effort may have had something to do with it. Couch told Marijuana.com’s Tom Angell that he ‘“provided information” to support Benca’s suit’, although Angell notes that he was elusive in claiming a formal role in the attack.

Paul Armentano, deputy director for national NORML said the organization has yet to endorse either initiative because they must do so by board vote, and will take a position at the next meeting September 17. Armentano points out that although Benca attempted to block the AMCA, another longtime NORML member and Arkansas local John Wesley Hall is actually providing services to support it.

“…There are NORML members, acting on their own volition as individuals (not as representatives of NORML) engaged in both Arkansas campaigns,” Armentano says.

Benca declined to comment.

The initiatives take two fundamentally different approaches to the legalization, regulation and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes. The AMCA was formed and supported by years of grassroots activism while the AMMA is only being publicly backed by a single attorney, David Couch, who many feel is promoting the law because it favors profits over patients.

Who Is Funding AMMA and AMCA?

Couch told Talk Business the AMMA has had “significant financial backing” from groups tied to the pain management industry and “several” Arkansas liquor store owners. Like many states, Arkansas heavily regulates alcohol distribution even though the licensed stores are privately owned and for-profit. Couch says that these donors and one other wealthy-yet-unnamed individual contributed the initial $1.5 million to collect the qualifying signatures.

The AMCA has received a total of $50,000 in large donations, $25,000 each from Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Along with NORML, MPP and DPA comprise the “big three” non-profit political organizations working to promote state-level cannabis legalization efforts across the country. The rest of the money used to support the AMCA has come from small private contributions.

Each initiative takes a fundamentally different approach to regulation, although both claim to be pro-patient and pro-business. The AMMA promises to be “revenue positive” and benefit businesses threatened by legalized “recreational” cannabis while the AMCA takes the science-backed and liberty-centric approach that cannabis is a non-toxic plant safely used by patients in other states and therefore should be legal for Arkansans too.

If the AMMA becomes the law, it would concentrate the industry, and therefore the wealth generated, to less than 10 producers. There are caps on business licensing fees set under AMMA but no caps set on patient licensing fees.

The AMCA campaign says it’s initiative would also be good for the state economy by creating jobs at all the new small businesses that would be allowed to open around the state.

“It’s going to create a huge number of jobs, besides giving patients an alternative for their medicine,” AMCA campaign head Melissa Fults told the Sentinel-Record.

How Is Access Controlled?

Under the AMMA, only 4-8 cultivation centers would provide cannabis and cannabis-infused products to 20-40 dispensaries throughout the entire state. Each of these dispensaries could grow 50 plants and purchase more from the 4-8 large-scale cultivation centers.

The AMCA permits home cultivation of no more than 20 plants alongside 39 or more licensed commercial grows, one per dispensary. The AMCA allows dispensaries to cultivate 10 plants per patient.

Other states have recently passed laws that allow a small handful of companies exclusive legal rights to supply the entire market while also preventing home cultivation. In nearby Florida, this sort of system is coming under fire for being designed to benefit hedge funds and politicians but not sick patients.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the two initiatives: where all the money ends up. A portion of AMMA’s revenue would go to enforcement and management of the incredible bureaucracy it creates. AMCA would partially use taxes to subsidize low-income patients.

What Happens If They Both Pass?

Right now it is unclear what would happen if both measures pass, but what is clear is the legal difference between the two, should they both pass. As an initiative, the AMCA can be amended by citizens and voters, as a constitutional ballot amendment like the AMMA, it is much more difficult to make changes to the program once it is passed.

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About the Author
Angela Bacca

Angela Bacca

Angela Bacca is a Portland, Oregon-based writer, journalist, photographer and medical cannabis patient. She has been working in cannabis media for eight years, starting with Ed Rosenthal's Quick Trading Company, where she continues to collaborate on editorial projects. She is the former editor of Cannabis Now Magazine as well as the former managing editor of Ladybud Magazine. She currently freelances for a wide variety of cannabis media including Illegally Healed, Alternet.org and Civilized.life. Bacca has a Bachelor's in Journalism from San Francisco State University and a Master's in Business Administration from Mills College.

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