By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - A proposal to legalize medical marijuana can appear on the November ballot, the Arkansas Supreme Court said on Thursday, in a ruling that could make Arkansas the first southern state to allow certain patients to use the drug.
The Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values filed suit in August to keep the measure off the ballot. The group argued that its title - the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act - was misleading and the proposal was hard to understand.
In a unanimous ruling, the court rejected the coalition's argument.
Associate Justice Karen R. Baker wrote in the opinion that the ballot name and title were acceptable. The title was not "duly long, nor is it complex or misleading," she added.
Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group spearheading the marijuana initiative, said it was happy with the court's decision.
"It just goes to show that if you respect the system, and follow the rules, things will come out in your favor," said Christopher Kell, the group's spokesman. "We are excited that it has cleared the latest hurdle and now we are looking forward to educating the voters and getting it passed on November 6th."
If the measure is approved, patients with conditions like cancer and AIDS would be allowed to purchase marijuana from a dispensary with a doctor's prescription.
Larry Page, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values, said: "This is about the first incremental step to legalizing marijuana for recreational use."
Medical marijuana use is permitted in 17 states, primarily in the Northeast and the West. In November, Massachusetts also will have a medical marijuana measure on the ballot, and voters in Washington, Colorado and Oregon will decide whether to legalize recreational use of the drug.
Arkansas Democratic Governor Mike Beebe opposes the ballot initiative because he is concerned about the state's cost to regulate marijuana dispensaries, spokesman Matt DeCample said. But Beebe does not plan to campaign against the measure.
"If I understand what I think I understand about it, if it passes, it's going to require a whole lot of administration from the health department," Beebe told reporters Thursday. "I don't know where we're going to get it from."
An Arkansas poll released in July found that 47 percent of likely voters supported medical marijuana, 46 percent opposed it and 7 percent were undecided. The survey of 585 people by the Arkansas television program "Talk Business" and Hendrix College had a margin of error of 4 percent.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Stacey Joyce)