After Issue 4’s failure, what’s next for recreational marijuana in Arkansas?

Legalization efforts see mixed results across U.S. on election night

(Getty Images)

*This story was updated on Thursday, Nov. 10, at 12 p.m. with additional comments from the chairman of Responsible Growth Arkansas.

Arkansans on Tuesday soundly rejected a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, but advocates promise an improved proposal in 2024.

The state was one of five in the U.S. voting on cannabis legalization, but only voters in Missouri and Maryland approved it, making them the 20th and 21st states where the drug is legal for adult use.

The Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment was defeated by a coalition of social conservatives and marijuana proponents who felt the measure didn’t go far enough.

Melissa Fults, a longtime cannabis activist and medical marijuana patient advocate who campaigned against Issue 4, said Wednesday that she plans to help lead a 2024 initiative effort.

Fults, who plans to partner with the attorney who drafted Arkansas’ medical marijuana amendment in 2016, said the 2024 offering would address Issue 4’s shortcomings.

“We’ll have expungement, home grow and greatly expand the industry and make it more affordable for everyday people to get into the industry,” Fults said.

A campaign official for Issue 4 sponsor, Responsible Growth Arkansas, hinted to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday that the medical cannabis industry-backed group could bring another amendment to voters in two years.

“We are proud of what we have done and the first time in history that this has been on the ballot, and we are going to go back and look back at what we can do next time and bring it back to the voters in 2024,” said Robert McLarty, the campaign director for Issue 4.

McLarty couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. Eddie Armstrong, the chairman of Responsible Growth, provided a statement when reached by text message.

“Responsible Growth Arkansas was committed to responsibly expand the adult use of cannabis in Arkansas, attempting to become the first southern state to pass this through a citizens’ driven initiative on the ballot,” he said. “While hundreds of thousands of Arkansans supported this effort it came up short in the end. We thank all those who worked to place this initiative on the ballot and supported our campaign with their voice and their vote.”

Asked if there would be another legalization effort in 2024, Armstrong said: “I’m certain there will be.”

Jerry Cox, director of the anti-marijuana Family Council Action Committee, said the group would continue to oppose legalization efforts, and he pointed to Responsible Growth’s well-financed campaign.

“Any future recreational marijuana effort will be hampered by the fact that wealthy donors spent over $15 million on this campaign and came away with nothing to show for it,” Cox said. “They will think twice before doing that again.  They took their best shot and failed. We took their best shot and won. It will be interesting to see how much money future efforts will be able to raise.”

With 97.3% of precincts reporting, unofficial results for Issue 4 as of Wednesday afternoon were:

• Against — 499,843

• For — 388,574

 

 

Around the country

Advocates for marijuana liberalization saw mixed results as legalization ballot measures were counted Tuesday, with Maryland and Missouri voters approving recreational use for adults but Arkansas, South Dakota and North Dakota rejecting the proposal.

Maryland’s referendum passed easily, with nearly two-thirds of voters in favor. In more conservative Missouri, the measure received 53%.

But recreational use was not expanded in three other states, including in South Dakota, where a measure to create a recreational market passed in 2020 but was overturned by a state judge last year. The referendum this year would have legalized recreational use but not set up a commercial market.

South Dakota’s initiative received just 47.1% of the vote this year.

Arkansas’ initiative received 43.7%.

North Dakota’s received 45.1%.

Despite the losses, Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the marijuana legalization advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Wednesday the momentum nationally still favored legalization.

Turnout is typically lower in midterm elections than in presidential years, which could partially explain South Dakota’s result, he said.

And many Republican candidates ran on a “law-and-order” message that may have discouraged GOP voters from approving marijuana measures, he added.

“At minimum, it’s a temporary setback, it definitely doesn’t halt our momentum” he said. “We’re in a stronger position today than we were yesterday because two additional states have legalized the adult use of marijuana and we've gone from 19 legal states to 21 legal states.”

In 2023 and 2024, more states would likely approve legalization, Armentano said.

The organization is targeting Ohio for a 2023 ballot measure, and state legislators elsewhere will attempt to change the law through the more traditional legislative process, he said.

Tuesday’s results in Minnesota, where Democrats flipped the state Senate and will control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office next year, also make that state a likely objective for legalization advocates, he said.

Still, the defeats in more conservative states in the South and Midwest may show the limits on enacting legalization through ballot measures, which are only allowed in about half of states anyway.

Since Colorado and Washington approved recreational use 10 years ago, similar measures have mostly passed, but largely in coastal blue and purple states.

A Colorado ballot measure to legalize psychedelic mushrooms also appeared on track to narrowly pass, with 51% of voters in support in unofficial results.

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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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Jacob Fischler, States Newsroom
Jacob Fischler, States Newsroom

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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