Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson Leads Battle Against Adult-Use Cannabis Bill

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a joint press briefing Monday at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, joining insurance, construction, truckers, and agriculture officials to speak out against Issue 4, the state’s amendment on the ballot that would legalize cannabis for adults.

If approved by voters next week, the amendment, led by Responsible Growth Arkansas (RGA), would legalize possession and use of cannabis by adults 21 and over, authorizing licensed dispensaries to sell cannabis produced by licensed medical and adult-use cultivation facilities, including cannabis produced under Amendment 98, beginning on March 8, 2023.

The measure would also allocate tax proceeds to go towards law enforcement funding, cancer research at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, drug courts across the state, and general state revenues.

Opponents of the amendment, led by Gov. Hutchinson, cited the potential danger it might bring to roadways and workplace areas. “This puts us at a disadvantage in [the] recruiting industry if Issue 4 passes,” Hutchinson said, citing how workplace drug testing would be impacted.

Opponents of Issue 4 also noted that it does not expunge criminal records or allow for home growing. And if passed, the amendment cannot be altered by the Arkansas State Legislature. “That makes it very difficult if somehow this misses the mark,” Hutchinson said.

Cannabis Proponents Say Not So Fast

Proponents of Issue 4 disagree with the governor and the opposition to adult-use cannabis in Arkansas. The Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association (ACIA) is a 501(c)(6) cannabis trade association advocating for laws and public policies that foster a healthy, professional, and accountable industry.

“The governor’s recent remarks were disappointing,” says President of ACIA Robert deBin. “Since the passage of legalized medical marijuana in 2016, the cannabis industry in Arkansas has brought positive change to our state through the creation of both new jobs and tax revenue.”

As former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency under former President George W. Bush, Hutchinson oversaw one of the harshest crackdowns on drugs in decades—or rather, crackdowns on cannabis. Instead of focusing on hard drugs such as methamphetamine or heroin, the Bush administration then launched “an all-out assault on marijuana,” as Rolling Stone described. In 2002, Hutchinson personally oversaw an assault on medical cannabis clubs in California—dispensaries voted into law and driven by people living with HIV and cancer. At the time, Hutchinson said smoking medical cannabis has “no medical benefit.”

Yet Arkansas topped U.S. states in terms of meth use, according to a study by Millennium Health conducted in 2020. But cannabis advocates say the idea is that if police aren’t going after people for cannabis, they’d likely have more time to focus on hard drugs.

“Almost 200,000 Arkansans signed Responsible Growth Arkansas' petition to vote on the state's first adult-use cannabis amendment—the most signatures ever submitted for a ballot initiative,” deBin continues. “Clearly, the governor does not speak for all Arkansans, and strong support remains for adult use across the state.”

“There are multiple factors at play here,” says ACIA Policy Committee Chair Robbin Rahman. “First and foremost, Arkansas is a very conservative state and these industries, along with the people that run them, represent some of the oldest, largest, and most well-connected business interests in Arkansas. As a general rule, conservative ideology—particularly conservative business ideology—has a deeply held belief that cannabis is bad for business and, therefore, bad for Arkansas.

Rahman continues, “Of course, these beliefs aren’t backed by actual data or studies, but instead are based on long-standing tropes and misinformation. The second factor, which is very complicated, is that these companies—particularly trucking and insurance companies—operate in a tricky regulatory environment involving interstate travel, federal contracts and a very competitive workforce environment. An adult-use cannabis program that is at odds with federal law, in their view, would further complicate their business. Of course, plenty of similar businesses in states with adult-use programs have figured out how to navigate these issues.

“In any event, it shouldn’t be terribly shocking that businesses in these industries will always use their influence to maintain the status quo, even if it ignores the fact that an overwhelming number of Arkansans support an adult-use cannabis program and legalizing cannabis would afford the average Arkansan—many of whom are employed by these companies—with the comfort that they won’t be arrested for carrying small amounts of cannabis.”

Responsible Growth Arkansas (RGA) earlier this month raised upwards of $13 million with support from locals. Despite this, Issue 4 faces tightening polls and an uphill battle in a typically conservative state.

“With all due respect to the governor, fact: three of five of the top manufacturing states in the country have adult-use cannabis or medical cannabis or both,” RGA Campaign Director Robert McLarty stated in response to the governor’s press conference. “Like an old scare tactic of the Halloween sequel, today's press conference repeats yesterday's claims that the sky will fall. It didn't fall in 2016 and won't fall once Arkansas voters pass Issue 4.” Like clockwork, the yearly hysteria over THC-laced candy given out to trick-or-treaters hits the state’s media cycle.

Last month on October 6, Gov. Hutchinson released a statement criticizing President Joe Biden’s popular—albeit incomplete—announcement to pardon some low-level federal cannabis offenses.

“The President, in his announced policy on marijuana, has waved the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse and has adopted all the talking points of the drug legalizers. The Department of Justice should not issue blanket pardons but each case should be looked at individually,” Gov. Hutchinson wrote. “As Governor I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses. But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued.

“In terms of rescheduling marijuana, the president is ignoring the science that is behind the different categories of drugs,’ he continued. “While his proposal sounds good, this is a step that has not been taken by the Obama Administration or the Trump Administration. Biden is simply playing election-year politics and sacrificing our national interest to win votes.”

Arkansas voters go to the polls on November 8, and all eyes are on the state as it joins North Dakota, South Dakota, Maryland, and Missouri in deciding whether or not to implement adult-use cannabis laws.

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