LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a proposed ballot measure that, if successful, would make the state the first in the South to legalize medical marijuana.
Justices rejected a challenge by a coalition of conservative groups who had asked the court to block the proposed initiated act from the November ballot or order the state to not count any votes cast on the issue.
The measure would allow patients with qualifying conditions to buy marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries with a doctor's recommendation. The proposal acknowledges that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values argued that it doesn't adequately explain that approved users could still face federal prosecution.
"We hold that it is an adequate and fair representation without misleading tendencies or partisan coloring," the court wrote. "Therefore, the act is proper for inclusion on the ballot at the general election on Nov. 6, 2012, and the petition is therefore denied."
Arkansas will be the first Southern state to put the medical marijuana question to voters. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some fashion. Massachusetts voters are also expected to vote on the issue this fall, while the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled a medical marijuana initiative can't appear on that state's ballot.
The conservative coalition argued that Arkansas' 384-word ballot question doesn't accurately describe other consequences of passing the 8,700-word law, including a provision that would allow minors to use medical marijuana with parental consent.
Justices disagreed and said the proposed law is fairly summarized in the question that will appear on the ballot.
"Here, after reviewing the ballot title of 384 words, we conclude that the title informs the voters in an intelligible, honest and impartial manner of the substantive matter of the act," the ruling said.
The group behind the measure, Arkansans for Compassionate Care, told the court it believes the measure is sufficiently fair to go before voters. David Couch, an attorney for the group, said he was pleased with the ruling and said it allowed them to shift gears to building support for the measure's passage.
"Now that we've passed muster with the Supreme Court we'll begin our campaign to show the people of the state of Arkansas that this is truly a compassionate measure," Couch said.
The coalition also shifted into campaign mode, preparing to mobilize church leaders and other conservatives to oppose the measure.
"This is about the first incremental step to legalizing marijuana for recreational use," said coalition member Larry Page, the director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council.
Under the proposal, qualifying health conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease. The proposal also would allow qualifying patients or a designated caregiver to grow marijuana if the patient lives more than 5 miles from a dispensary.
The conservative coalition's members include leaders of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, the Family Council Action Committee and the Families First Foundation.
Past efforts to put medical marijuana on the ballot in Arkansas have faltered, though voters in two cities in the state have approved referendums that encourage police to regard arrests for small amounts of marijuana as a low priority.
Supporters of the current proposal mounted an organized and well-funded campaign that surprised many political observers. Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group advocating for the measure, won ballot access after submitting far more than the required 62,500 signatures.
Medical marijuana has never come before voters in the South partly because of the difficulty of getting such initiatives on the ballot. And conservative legislators throughout the region have not backed the efforts. The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project has provided most of the funding for the campaign in Arkansas, contributing $251,000 to the effort.
Officials with the group said they stepped in after polling showed strong support for the measure in Arkansas. Group leaders also cite a "symbolic" value in passing a medical marijuana law in the South.
"I think it's a sign that marijuana policy reform is an idea that is coming of age now across the nation, rather than just in the states where we've seen it so far," said Morgan Fox, the group's communications director. "It's really an important moment."
Gov. Mike Beebe, who is opposed to the proposal, told reporters on Thursday he doesn't believe the state's voters would legalize medical marijuana. Beebe said he's asked for an estimate of how much it will cost the state to regulate the dispensaries if the measure passes.
"If I understand what I think I understand about it, if it passes, it's going to require a whole of administration from the health department," Beebe said. "I don't know where we're going to get it from."
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo