LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - Proponents of legalizing medical marijuana in Arkansas are hoping that 2012 is their lucky year.
After failed attempts to get the issue certified as a ballot initiative, a new group, Arkansans for Compassionate Care, has succeeded in clearing the first hurdle - getting Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel to certify the proposal’s ballot language.
The next step starts on Tuesday when the group begins to collect the required minimum of 62,507 signatures from registered voters. The group has until July 6, 2012 to submit them to the attorney general’s office in order to qualify the proposal for the November 2012 general election ballot.
“We want to ensure that sick and dying patients in Arkansas have the ability to get the medicine they need and that is sometimes medical marijuana,” said Ryan Denham, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care.
But Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, a conservative group based in Little Rock, said that legalizing marijuana for medical use makes the drug more available for recreational use.
“Any individual who can acquire, grow or own his own marijuana is one step away from sharing with his friends who may not have any medical issues,” Cox said.
California was the first state to allow marijuana for medical use in 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since then, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws.
In Arkansas, a medical marijuana initiative has never appeared on the statewide election ballot. A group tried to get the issue on the ballot in 2004 but failed to get enough signatures.
“I think public opinion has really shifted since then,” Denham said. “More people are supportive and we have a very diverse group of geographical volunteers to gather signatures.”
Signatures must come from at least 15 counties in the state. Denham says the group has more than 300 volunteers so far, along with 60 patients who are willing to share their stories in order to recruit more people to the cause.
Denham said the group modeled its legislation after Maine and Arizona laws.
Like those states, Denham said, Arkansas’ proposed legislation would have a strict list of conditions people must have to be able to use medical marijuana, such as cancer or AIDS.
California has faced problems with controlling its number of dispensaries, but Denham said the Arkansas bill would cap its number at 30 for the state.
“We wanted to avoid the pitfalls that we have seen in Colorado and California about how many dispensaries there are,” he said. “We also have a mechanism that allows cities and counties to ban dispensaries.”
Aside from dispensaries, patients who are sick and have been prescribed medical marijuana by a doctor could also grow their own plants with a limit of six at a time per patient.
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune