By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - A conservative Arkansas group seeking to prevent the state from becoming the first in the U.S. South to allow medical marijuana filed a lawsuit on Friday to knock a pot-as-medicine proposal off the November election ballot.
The lawsuit filed in the state Supreme Court by the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values argues the ballot's title, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, is misleading and the act itself hard to understand at 8,000 words long.
"By introducing more addictive substances into society, it is a family values issue," said Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council Action Committee of Arkansas, part of the coalition seeking to block the measure.
The move illustrates the deep misgivings about medical cannabis in the country's traditionally more conservative South, even as 17 other states mostly in the Northeast and West allow the drug for medical purposes. California voters first took that step in 1996.
The battle over medical pot in Arkansas comes as voters in Washington state, Colorado and Oregon are set to decide in November on whether to legalize recreational use of the drug. Massachusetts will also have a medical pot ballot measure.
Arkansans for Compassionate Care spent all year circulating petitions for the ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana in the state, and last week it reached the state's threshold of over 62,000 valid signatures.
Because of Arkansas' strict procedures for ballot initiatives, it is often difficult for groups to challenge them.
"The challenger has the burden of proof," said John DiPippa, professor of law and public policy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "There's often a back and forth between the sponsor and the attorney general before it is certified. All of that is designed to make it more difficult for successful ballot challenges."
DiPippa said such challenges often center on ambiguity in the ballot's name and title, but the Arkansas Attorney General's Office said it already covered that ground in previous dealings with the initiative's sponsors.
A poll released in July, before the initiative qualified for the ballot, from the Arkansas television program Talk Business and Hendrix College found 47 percent supported medical marijuana in the state compared to 46 percent against and 7 percent undecided. The poll of 585 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Christopher Kell, spokesperson for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said voters were savvy and compassionate. "They understand that this bill provides a proven blueprint to state regulation of medical marijuana," he said.
According to an August filing with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, Arkansans for Compassionate Care has raised over $264,000 with the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project providing the vast majority of its funds.
Marijuana Policy Project is also the main backer of the initiative in Colorado to legalize pot for recreational use.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston)