The 60% question: Is Issue 4 Arkansas’ last shot at recreational marijuana?

Issue 4 has attracted opposition, even from cannabis proponents, but others aren’t willing to wait any longer for a ‘perfect’ amendment

By: - November 2, 2022 7:00 am

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For some voters, whether they’ll vote to legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas next week comes down to one question. 

Could 60% of Arkansas voters support marijuana legalization in a future election? 

It’s this group of cannabis proponents that makes Issue 4 on the Nov. 8 ballot so interesting.

They dislike Issue 4’s strict market structure and continued prohibition on growing marijuana at home, but they also fear it could be Arkansas’ last real shot at legalization. 

Complicating the matter is Issue 2, another Nov. 8 ballot initiative that would require future referendums to win 60% of the vote instead of the current 50.1% threshold.

Andrés Stevens, a voter from Washington County, finds it “unconscionable” that Issue 4 doesn’t include a mechanism to expunge past nonviolent marijuana offenses, but he said he “held his nose” and voted for the measure on Saturday after considering the long term.

He believes Issue 2 could pass, and even if it doesn’t, Stevens thinks the General Assembly will continue looking for ways to make it harder for future ballot initiatives to pass. 

“I fundamentally see issue 4 as harm reduction,” he said. “I don’t consider it to be an ideal amendment, but given the stuff that state government has been up to, I’m not sure we’ll get a chance to get something better.”

What would the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment do?

  • Allow those 21 or older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, beginning March 8.
  • Issue eight “Tier 1” cultivation licenses to the existing medical marijuana cultivators in Arkansas.
  • Issue 12 “Tier 2” cultivation licenses, which would be allowed to grow no more than 250 mature plants at a time.
  • Issue 120 adult use dispensary licenses. The first 80 licenses would be granted to the current 40 medical marijuana dispensaries.

A tall hill to climb

Around the country, it has proved difficult, even in solidly blue states, to get 60% of voters to support cannabis legalization. 

Of the 12 states that have legalized recreational marijuana by referendum, only New Jersey (67% in 2020) and Arizona (60% in 2020) saw greater than 60% support of legalization, an Arkansas Advocate analysis of election data found.

Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 19 states, but the other seven states legalized the drug through the legislative process rather than ballot initiatives.

Nationally, public opinion has consistently exceeded 60% in favor of legalization, including the most recent Monmouth poll, which found 68% of Americans support recreational cannabis. 

David Couch, the Little Rock attorney who drafted Arkansas’ medical marijuana amendment, said that public opinion on cannabis has shifted over the last few years. 

Couch, a longtime cannabis proponent, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Issue 4, and he has pledged to draft a “better” legalization measure for the 2024 ballot. He believes getting 60% is possible.

“This issue is the same as same-sex marriage,” Couch said. “It’s a snowball running down the hill. You’re going to hop on or get run over by it.”

RELATED: Arkansas pro-marijuana activists oppose latest recreational effort

Eddie Armstrong, the former state representative who is chairman of the groups sponsoring Issue 4, Responsible Growth Arkansas, said that polling continues to show greater than 50% support for Issue 4, but the group planned to continue campaigning hard. 

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When Talk Business and Politics polled the issue in September, it found 58% of 834 likely voters supported Issue 4. 

Talk Business’ most recent poll in mid-October showed the margin has slimmed considerably, with 50.5% of the 974 likely voters surveyed in favor of Issue 4.

Asked about his pitch to those legalization proponents who have concerns about Issue 4, Armstrong said the decriminalization offered by the amendment is too great an opportunity to pass up. 

“Our pitch to people like that is if we fail to act now, with the 60% voter threshold looming in the future, the opportunity to get something in place is right now for Arkansans,” he said in an interview. “If in the future we’re faced with the 60% threshold, we’ll be looking at an unclimbable hill being the reality.”

State measures

State ballot measures have had an easier time exceeding 60% than national cannabis initiatives, but many of the state’s recent high-profile initiatives would have failed if they needed 60%.

Some examples of initiatives that have received greater than 60% of the vote: 

  • The initiated act to increase Arkansas’ minimum wage in 2018 (68%)
  • The 2018 constitutional amendment making it a requirement to show photo ID to vote (79%)
  • The 2008 amendment that created the state lottery and lottery scholarship program (62%)

Some of the initiatives that have received less than 60%:

  • In 2016, the medical marijuana amendment received 53%. 
  • In 2018, the amendment allowing casinos garnered 54%. 
  • In 2008, the amendment that prohibited those cohabitating outside of a “valid marriage” from adopting or fostering children received 57%.

Political divides

Issue 4 has split people who are usually political allies as well as made for strange bedfellows. 

State Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville), one of the most liberal members of the General Assembly, has used Twitter to encourage followers to vote “No” on Issue 4. 

The Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus also polled its members, and a majority recommended opposing Issue 4. 

Leding, in a thread of tweets Monday, said Issue 4 was not the last shot Arkansans would have at legalizing cannabis. 

“Rejecting Issue 4 isn't about waiting for a ‘perfect’ policy; it's about rejecting what would literally be the worst such policy in the U.S.,” Leding wrote. “We need and deserve better. Very limited competition, nothing that addresses criminal justice issues—I'm voting no.”

In response, Charles Blake, the former state lawmaker from Little Rock who was the House minority leader, said Issue 4 was a “necessary first step.”

“I know the disproportionate rate at which minorities are charged with marijuana possession may not be a concerning matter to you, but it’s something I think about often, and your argument to allow this practice to go on for at least 2 more years, is frustrating and disappointing,” Blake wrote.

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Stevens, the voter from Northwest Arkansas, also pointed to the revenue that Arkansas would miss out on by waiting two additional years. It’s not only the added revenue from Arkansans purchasing cannabis, but Stevens also said he believes Arkansas would see “cannabis tourism” from residents of Tennessee and Texas where the drug remains illegal. 

“We have a narrow window of opportunity that is ever-shrinking to take advantage,” he said. 

Armstrong, like Blake, said that decriminalizing marijuana and ensuring no else goes to jail for simple possession is important. 

“There is not a one size fits all [proposal], but it’s a darn good step in the right direction for Arkansas,” he said.

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Hunter Field, Arkansas Advocate
Hunter Field, Arkansas Advocate

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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