Arkansas voters to decide on recreational marijuana after all: state Supreme Court

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that voters can decide in November whether to make recreational marijuana legal in the state.

In a 20-page decision written by Justice Robin Wynne, the high court concluded 5-2 “that the ballot title at issue is complete enough to convey an intelligible idea of the scope and import of the proposed amendment.

“Therefore, Respondents and Intervenors have not met their burden of proving that the ballot title is insufficient. The people will decide whether to approve the proposed amendment in November.”

Justice Rhonda Wood concurred in the decision but said she applied a different rationale. Justices Shawn Womack and Barbara Webb, concurred in part and dissented in part with the ruling, but their opinions clearly disagree with the majority’s ruling.

Chief Justice John Kemp and Justices Courtney Hudson and Karen Baker did not express any opinion separate from the one written by Wynne.

The court had previously ordered that the Adult Use Cannabis Amendment be included on ballots being printed for the Nov. 8 election while the justices waited for filings in an appeal of the proposal’s rejection by the Arkansas State Board of Election Commissioners.

The board had ruled the ballot title unclear.

The proponents, Responsible Growth Arkansas, had gathered enough signatures and appealed the board’s decision.

The Supreme Court agreed in August to expedite the matter and ordered the Secretary of State’s office to include the amendment when it began printing ballots. Had the court agreed the measure should be disqualified, votes wouldn’t have been counted.

Responsible Growth Arkansas’ appeal named Secretary of State John Thurston in his official capacity and in his role as chair of the State Board of Election Commissioners and the board.

Two groups — Save Arkansas from Epidemic and Safe and Secure Communities —intervened in the case in favor of disqualifying the proposed amendment, arguing that the ballot title was misleading in several ways.

The court’s opinion directs the Secretary of State to certify the proposed amendment for inclusion on the Nov. 8 ballot within five days of the ruling unless a petition for a rehearng is filed.

Wood, in her concurring opinion, said, “Our constitutional government works best when courts maintain their limited role in this process and permit the people to pursue their constitutional power.

“While I believe that amending our constitution is something that the voters should do with caution, we should not underestimate the intelligence of the voters or their ability to evaluate a proposed ballot initiative,” she wrote.

“Likewise, we should not speculate whether regulatory bodies, or future legal interpretations, will heighten or lighten restrictions,” she said in an apparent reference to the concerns expressed by the intervening groups.

“It is for the people — not this court — to exercise the right to amend the constitution, and our court must continue to preserve this first power of the people of Arkansas by not supplanting their decisions with ours.”

In the partly concurring-partly dissenting opinion, Womack wrote that he agreed with the court’s conclusion that only the Secretary of State can declared a ballot title insufficient and that the law allowing the Board of Election Commissioners to do so is unconstitutional.

Thurston formally declared the ballot title insufficient earlier this month, and Womack wrote that “because the ballot title is partially misleading, the Secretary of State correctly declared it insufficient, and I would deny [Responsible Growth Arkansas’] petition.”

Womack specifically noted that the proposed ballot title does not add requirements for child-proof packaging and restrictions on advertising targeted at children.

“In fact, the proposed amendment will repeal the existing safeguards against child consumption and replace them with less stringent ones,” he wrote in direct disagreement with the court’s majority.

“Whether the proposed amendment will liberalize the regime to the extent children may have uncontrolled access to marijuana is undoubtedly a serious basis for reflection,” Womack wrote. “The proposed ballot title is nether complete enough to reveal the scope of the proposed amendment nor free of misleading omissions regarding the issues of child protection. The Secretary of State correctly determined the ballot title was insufficient.”

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.