Medical weed: What images do you see?

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

Unless Arkansas somehow becomes competitive in the presidential race, which it probably won’t, the state’s airwaves won’t be crammed with political advertising by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Pity our unfortunate fellow Americans in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida for that one. In Arkansas, the only race between candidates that might be mildly interesting is the one for U.S. Senate.

What we will have is a pretty good three-way debate about medical marijuana.

Arkansans likely will have two choices on their ballot: the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act and the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment. The act has already qualified, while the amendment is in the process of doing so.

Both would legalize marijuana for medicinal use, but they differ in substantive ways. The act would have the force of law, while the amendment alters the Arkansas Constitution, a more permanent statement. The act includes about 50 ailments for which marijuana could be prescribed; the amendment lists 14. Both would set up a network of dispensaries where patients could obtain the product, but the amendment’s would be for-profit enterprises while the act’s would be run by nonprofits. Only the act includes a provision allowing patients living too far from a dispensary to grow their own.

That last provision is the reason there are two ballot proposals. The leaders of the two groups,
the act’s Melissa Fults and the amendment’s David Couch, worked together in 2012 to convince voters to legalize medical marijuana and almost succeeded. Since then, they’ve split over “grow your own,” which Couch says Arkansans won’t accept. The split does not appear to be amicable.

Meanwhile, a campaign is forming to oppose both groups. On July 22, the Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities held an informational meeting at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. The coalition will include law enforcement personnel, educators, medical providers and others. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is opposed to the legalization efforts, as is the state’s surgeon general, Dr. Greg Bledsoe. The State Chamber is opposed because it says medical marijuana will complicate workplace safety enforcement efforts and worker’s compensation claims.

The main speaker at the meeting was Henny Lasley, a Little Rock native now living in Colorado, which legalized marijuana medically in 2000 and recreationally in 2012. Now, she says, youth marijuana use in Colorado is the highest in the nation. There are more marijuana stores in Denver than pharmacies, Starbucks, or McDonald’s. Hundreds of marijuana products – including all kinds of fun-looking foods – are for sale in that state. She and Dr. Bledsoe say that, far from being harmless, marijuana is a dangerous plant with long-term effects and far higher concentrations of the mind-altering THC compound than it contained in the past.

Lasley said that all of the four states, plus D.C., where marijuana is now legal recreationally originally legalized it medically. She and the coalition’s campaign manager, Terry Benham, say the medical marijuana efforts are just Trojan horses hiding the marijuana industry’s true intentions, full-scale legalization.

Fults and Couch say this is not a Trojan horse. They say marijuana ought to be an option for doctors and patients in some circumstances, such as cancer and epilepsy, and that the Food and Drug Administration is dragging its feet on studying the drug for political reasons, including the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Medical marijuana is now legal in 25 states plus D.C., but legal recreationally in only four states plus D.C., so most states have not followed Colorado’s lead in expanding its use.

This campaign, like many, will come down to images – the kind voters see on television and the internet, and the kind they see in their heads. What comes to your mind with the words “medical marijuana”? A cancer patient or an epileptic getting a little relief, or a teenager getting his hands on a now-available gateway drug? Do you see a small network of dispensaries responsibly providing a plant to a few who can benefit from it? Or do you see marijuana stores popping up on Main Street?

If you’re not sure, campaigns will be trying to help you form those images, one way or the other. This is an election, after all.

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