Arkansas court upholds ballot measure on marijuana

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a proposed ballot measure that, if successful, would make the state the first in the South to legalize medical marijuana.

Justices rejected a challenge by a coalition of conservative groups that had asked the court to block the initiative from the November ballot or order the state to not count any votes cast on the issue.

The measure would allow patients with qualifying conditions to buy marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries with a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal acknowledges that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values argued that it doesn’t adequately explain that approved users could still face federal prosecution.

“We hold that it is an adequate and fair representation without misleading tendencies or partisan coloring,” the court wrote. “Therefore, the act is proper for inclusion on the ballot at the general election on Nov. 6, 2012, and the petition is therefore denied.”

Arkansas will be the first Southern state to put the medical marijuana question to voters. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some fashion. Massachusetts voters also are expected to vote on the issue this fall, while the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled a medical marijuana initiative can’t appear on that state’s ballot.

The conservative coalition argued that Arkansas’ 384-word ballot question doesn’t accurately describe the full consequences of passing the 8,700-word law, including a provision that would allow minors to use medical marijuana with parental consent.

Justices disagreed and said the proposed law is fairly summarized in the question that will appear on the ballot.

David Couch, an attorney for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said he was pleased with the ruling and said it allows the group to shift gears to building support for the measure’s passage.

“Now that we’ve passed muster with the Supreme Court, we’ll begin our campaign to show the people of the state of Arkansas that this is truly a compassionate measure,” Mr. Couch said.

The anti-marijuana coalition also shifted into campaign mode, preparing to mobilize church leaders and other conservatives to oppose the measure.

“This is about the first incremental step to legalizing marijuana for recreational use,” said coalition member Larry Page, the director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council.

Under the proposal, qualifying health conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease. The proposal also would allow qualifying patients or a designated caregiver to grow marijuana if the patient lives more than 5 miles from a dispensary.

The conservative coalition’s members include leaders of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, the Family Council Action Committee and the Families First Foundation.

Medical marijuana has never come before voters in the South partly because of the difficulty of getting such initiatives on the ballot. And conservative legislators throughout the region have not backed the efforts. The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project has provided most of the funding for the campaign in Arkansas, contributing $251,000 to the effort.

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who is opposed to the proposal, told reporters Thursday that he doesn’t believe the state’s voters would legalize medical marijuana. Mr. Beebe said he has asked for an estimate of how much it will cost the state to regulate the dispensaries if the measure passes.

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