Medical Marijuana Approved; Good Or Bad For State Economy Too Close To Call

Nov 9, 2016

David Couch (right) checks on early returns from the Secretary of State's office that had Issue 6 ahead by eight percentage points. It eventually passed 53-47.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansans with certain ailments may look forward this morning to a prescription marijuana option in the near future. Voters approved ballot issue 6, the so called Medical Marijuana referendum, 53 percent to 47 percent last night.

Lawyer David Couch was the ballot issue’s biggest advocate. He said there are perhaps tens of thousands of Arkansans who already use marijuana for medicinal reasons, and the vote will simply move them into a “legitimate marketplace.”

“You know, I think that upon reflection in history at some point in time, people are going to look at Arkansas as a state that turned the tide for medical marijuana legalization pretty much nationwide. I mean, if you look at all the other states that have legalized medical marijuana, they’re all blue states. We’re really the first red state to have done that.”

Across town, state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe was at the Republican Party of Arkansas watch party at Embassy Suites. Although he fought hard to defeat Issue 6, he’ll now assume his role as surgeon general and help those who qualify and want it to know as much as possible about marijuana as a drug choice.

“We’ll sit down with all the people involved, the regulators, the folks who are advocates in this, and we’ll try to figure out a way to protect consumers, educate patients and patients’ families about the risk of marijuana so that they can make an informed decision, and we’ll go about implementing this in a way that tries to protect consumers and patients as best as possible.”

Couch said the “big elephant in the room” on this issue is that so many Arkansans already use marijuana, either to alleviate pain or anxiety, recreationally or both. For those Arkansans who present one of the 17 qualifying conditions for a prescription, “so we’re taking those people out of the black market and we’re putting them in a legitimate marketplace.”

Late Tuesday night, Jerry Cox, leader of the Family Council, promulgated a press release in which he said, “This fight is not over. The battle now shifts to the Arkansas Legislature.”

He’s threatening to lobby for anti-marijuana bills when the legislature convenes in January.

Couch says medical marijuana promises to feed perhaps $8 to $10 million into the state’s general revenue in sales taxes, not to mention property taxes from the proposed 40 dispensaries.

Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe checks his phone before giving a TV interview at the Republican Party of Arkansas watch party at Embassy Suites. He knew, he said, that Issue 6 was winning by about 10,000 votes, and that his opposition would probably go unheeded by voters.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Bledsoe said such revenue would ultimately be offset by “high school dropout rates, the drug driving and the injuries from that and the cost on health care, the cost of the cognitive impairment caused by the habitual use by kids who are under 25, the educational costs. So these are things that, they are difficult to tally when you’re looking at it because they’re so diverse and broad spread, but over the course of years, you’re going to see this is actually a drain and not a positive thing economically for the state.”

“People in Arkansas right now do marijuana,” Couch said. “It’s like a big elephant in the room. People already do it.”

Couch said the two pledged to each other before the election that if his ballot effort passed, they would work together to implement it, but he disputed Bledsoe’s characterization. He said as many as 1,000 new jobs could be created, at an average hourly wage of $17. He also pointed out that none of Arkansas’s neighbors have legal medical marijuana.

“I imagine Hot Springs would be a great location for a medical marijuana dispensary and mineral baths. They seem to go hand in hand, this holistic health.”