- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 8, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas became the first Bible Belt state to legalize medical marijuana on Tuesday, a cultural tipping point that advocates hoped would be proof of pot’s popularity even in conservative parts of the country.

Voters narrowly approved the constitutional amendment legalizing the drug for certain patients, despite the opposition of several powerful industry groups and the state’s Republican governor, who once served as director of the Drug Enforcement Agency. The move came four years after a similar measure failed at the ballot box.

More than half the states have legalized medical marijuana, but Arkansas is the first in the deeply conservative Bible Belt to do so. Florida and North Dakota also legalized medical marijuana on Tuesday, and voters in Montana were considering expanding access to the drug there. Meanwhile, California and Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana use, and three other states were considering doing so.

“Arkansas voters just brought medical cannabis to the South. From here on it will be much easier to get other states on board,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the national pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.

Supporters of the Arkansas measure said it would help patients suffering from a number of conditions that can’t otherwise be treated as effectively. Opponents, including the state Chamber of Commerce, the state Hospital Association and Gov. Asa Hutchinson said legalizing medical marijuana would be a drain on state resources and make it harder for employers to enforce drug-free workplaces.

Opponents of the measure said they would now focus on legislation next year to help limit what they called the consequences of the legalization measure.

“We have to find a way to mitigate the harm done when tons of so-called ‘medical marijuana’ are injected into our communities, our schools, and the workplace,” Jerry Cox, head of the socially conservative Family Council, said in a statement.

Hutchinson said he would work with lawmakers on the regulations that will be required to enforce the legalization measure.

“There are many uncertainties and this is new territory for all of us,” he said in a statement.

Support among voters didn’t appear to fall along party lines. John Meador, a Republican from Little Rock, said he voted to legalize medical marijuana and wasn’t swayed by opponents’ warnings that it would open the door to the recreational use of the drug.

“The state’s going to regulate it and I trust the state to do a pretty good job on that,” said Meador, 73.

But David Krucas, a Republican who moved to Arkansas from Colorado within the past year, said he opposed the measure after seeing how legalizing recreational marijuana affected that state.

“While I think it’s pretty much inevitable that it’s going to be legalized in most of the country, I really don’t agree with it,” said Krucas, 55, a diesel electrician.

The Arkansas measure, known as Issue 6, was the only valid medical marijuana proposal on the ballot. The state Supreme Court invalidated a competing measure after ruling that its backers didn’t follow state law regarding paid canvassers.

Issue 6 allows patients diagnosed with qualifying medical conditions to apply for a state-issued registration card that would let them buy marijuana from licensed dispensaries. The proposal lists 12 conditions that would qualify, including cancer, Crohn’s Disease and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with chronic or debilitating diseases that produces certain symptoms such as seizures or severe nausea. It would also allow the Department of Health to add other qualifying medical conditions.

The head of the group that campaigned for the measure urged lawmakers not to try to limit the program too sharply with regulations.

“Anybody who wants to try and gut this program, there’s going to be a horrible backlash,” said David Couch, head of Arkansans United for Medical Marijuana.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo


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