By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
It was a good legislative session for some (gun rights supporters), a bad one for others (supporters of more highway spending), and for supporters of medical marijuana, it was as good as could be expected.
The amendment passed by Arkansas voters in November could be amended with a two-thirds vote by legislators, and at least that percentage likely voted against it, as did Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. There were ample opportunities these past three months for those lawmakers to mostly overturn the amendment overtly or subversively. But the attitude among many legislators and the governor was that regardless of what they believed about the amendment, the people voted for it, so their democratic duty was to make it work.
An early test was House Bill 1058 by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, which changed a provision in the amendment requiring doctors to certify that the potential benefits of medical marijuana likely would outweigh the risks for a patient. Doctors, Rep. House argued, would be reluctant to make that claim because there are no accepted medical standards for marijuana, which remains an illegal drug in the eyes of the federal government, and they could face liability issues. The bill allowed doctors instead to simply state the patient suffered from one of the qualifying medical conditions spelled out in the amendment. In other words, they were identifying an illness, which they would do anyway.
If the spread of medical marijuana were to be limited, here was the perfect place to do it. The Legislature could simply leave the amendment exactly as the voters had approved it, and many doctors wouldn’t prescribe it. You could see the wheels turning as legislators considered that possibility. It passed the House with 70 votes, three to spare, on Jan. 17, and then passed the Senate with 24 votes, none to spare, on Jan. 23. The governor signed the bill into law as Act 5 four days later.
Efforts that would have significantly limited the drug failed to advance. Senate Bill 238 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, would have delayed the legalization of medical marijuana in Arkansas until it is legal in the United States. It didn’t even get a motion in committee. Senate Bill 357 by Rapert would have prohibited the smoking of marijuana anywhere in Arkansas. It failed twice in the Senate. House and Senate bills that would have made it illegal to sell edible marijuana products each failed in their respective chambers.
Legislators in all passed two dozen medical marijuana bills, and some did limit its use or add to its price and thus make it less accessible. Act 1098 by Rep. House adds a 4 percent tax for cultivation facilities, dispensaries, and other medical marijuana businesses. The tax will pay for regulating the drug but will raise the price for consumers at least 8 percent. Other laws prohibit smoking marijuana where tobacco smoking is prohibited, ban products that could appeal to children, allow schools to prevent marijuana-impaired students from attending school, and ban the possession of marijuana by military personnel or their caregivers and on military sites. Act 593 by Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, includes a range of legal protections for employers if they take action against employees who are impaired while on the job or if they exclude employees from safety-sensitive positions.
Even with those changes, lawmakers did not fundamentally alter the fact that marijuana soon will be available in Arkansas, legally, for qualifying patients. The market merely awaits the bureaucratic process and the establishment of businesses. The first licenses for growers and dispensaries could be issued by the end of September, and then there has to be time to grow the plants, build the facilities, and open the doors to patient-customers.
Of course, there is the matter of marijuana still being illegal for any purpose under federal law, which covers every square inch of the country, including Arkansas. All of this is happening because the Obama administration looked the other way, Congress tacitly approved, and the Trump administration so far is following suit.
This would be a lot less weird if federal law were either changed or enforced. Seeing how neither apparently is going to happen, expect to see medical marijuana – legal in Arkansas, technically illegal in America – available for purchase around January.