Here are my Arkansans of the year. Who are yours?

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Recently, Time magazine announced its “Person of the Year,” based on who its editors believe had the most impact, for good or bad, in 2016. It’s choice was President-elect Donald Trump.

Based on that criteria, who would be the Arkansans of the Year?

The list would have to include David Couch, the attorney who – basically by himself with the financial support of two donors – legalized marijuana for medicinal use in Arkansas. Couch proposed the amendment and qualified it for the ballot in a way that it survived a Supreme Court challenge when all the other voter-initiated proposals were declared invalid. He helped engineer the removal of a rival medical marijuana proposal. Then he ran just enough of a campaign to pass the measure with 53 percent of the vote.

As a result, Arkansans will have greater access to a natural remedy that clearly helps some patients. Sick people will have an option other than manufactured chemicals produced by industrialized, bottom-line-focused pharmaceutical companies. For some, marijuana will replace opiates, which, though legal, potentially are far more addictive and dangerous, even deadly. At least for now, no longer will otherwise law-abiding citizens be forced to sneak around state and local authorities to help themselves or their loved ones.

At the same time, the drug inevitably will find its way into the hands of people who are not sick, including curious young people using it for experimentation, not medicine. The state has taken a step in the direction of full legalization – the potential destination being Denver, where marijuana stores are more common than McDonald’s restaurants. The medical profession must now incorporate a treatment process it doesn’t fully understand. Employers must now negotiate a regulatory minefield using maps that keep changing.

In the upcoming legislative session, medical marijuana will command the attention of legislators who, in many cases, voted against it. Policymakers must now create a system legalizing a substance in Arkansas that’s still illegal in America, while keeping an eye on an incoming U.S. attorney general who has indicated strong opposition to the drug.

How’s that for impact?

Right up there with Couch is Cindy Gillespie, the state’s new director of the Department of Human Services. While so many others argue about past and future health care systems, she is in charge of administering much of the one we’ve got.

What has her job been like this year? In March, she took over an $8.4 billion agency that was a mess, and began cleaning it up. As of May, there was a backlog of 146,000 Medicaid applications, some dating back to 2013. Now there are less than 9,000, and probably none by the end of December. Her agency is in charge of the controversial private option, soon to be Arkansas Works, where the state buys private health insurance for more than 300,000 Arkansans – more than a tenth of us. Medicaid pays for nursing home patients and children’s health care. It also is responsible for finding temporary and at times permanent homes for the state’s foster children – yet another systemic crisis she is tasked with taming.

Two others would qualify for my list. Sen. Tom Cotton increased his national profile through his forceful denunciation of the Obama administration’s Iran deal and further positioned himself as a future presidential contender. If Hillary Clinton had won, he’d be running for president in 2020. (Bonus points for him for becoming a father for the second time this month.) Christie Erwin’s Project Zero organization this year connected 113 children with their adoptive families. What a huge impact she had on all of them.

Finally, it must be said that “impact” is impossible to measure. Seemingly earth-shattering people and events are soon forgotten. What happens in obscurity can set in motion world-changing chains of events. We must place little stock in journalists, or anyone, trying to explain The Meaning of It All. After all, a baby born in Bethlehem at most would have merited a few lines in the birth announcements at the time.

David Couch, Cindy Gillespie, Tom Cotton, and Christie Erwin – those are my Arkansans of the year. Who would be yours?

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