Pubdate: Sun, 30 Sep 2012
Source: Sentinel-Record, The (AR)
Copyright: 2012 Associated Press
Author: Andrew Demillo
Note: Andrew Demillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for 
The Associated Press since 2005.


LITTLE ROCK - The Arkansas Supreme Court decision to keep medical 
marijuana's legalization on the ballot introduces some 
unpredictability to the November election and shifts attention to an 
issue that might not be easily defined by party labels.

That's no small feat for an Arkansas election dominated by 
predictability when it comes to national politics and partisan 
bickering when it comes to the state level. With Republicans aiming 
to win control of the state Legislature for the first time since 
Reconstruction, this may be one of the few issues where Arkansas 
voters won't hew to traditional party lines.

That's a situation supporters and opponents of the proposed initiated 
act are counting on after justices last week rejected a lawsuit 
challenging the ballot measure. The unanimous decision means Arkansas 
will be the first southern state to ask its voters whether to 
legalize the drug for medical purposes.

Both sides of the issue say they're counting on help from both 
parties to win the debate.

"The support is not as divisive as you would think," said Chris Kell, 
campaign strategist for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group 
pushing for the act's passage. "I'm getting as much or more help from 
Republicans as from Democrats."

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical 
marijuana in some fashion, and three states are expected to vote this 
year on the drug's full-scale legalization. But the debate hasn't 
been waged in the South, where putting measures on the ballot is more 
difficult and with conservative legislators throughout the region 
unlikely to take up the matter on their own.

"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, communications manager 
for the Washingtonbased Marijuana Policy Project, which has 
contributed most of the money for the Arkansas effort. "It's really 
an important moment."

Opponents of the measure already have an active network of church 
leaders and other conservatives in place from past ballot fights, 
including the successful 2004 campaign to ban gay marriage in the 
state. But after losing a bid to strike the measure from the November 
ballot, opponents say they've got to build a coalition that goes 
beyond the conservative activists they've relied on for those campaigns.

"I think the success of our campaign against this measure is going to 
hinge more than most campaigns on our ability or someone's ability to 
mobilize coalitions that don't normally work together to oppose this 
measure," said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council and a 
member of the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values.

Cox said that includes reaching out to law enforcement and medical 
officials that he says could speak out against the act.

The big unknown is just how big of a role either party will play in 
the debate, especially with so much attention focused on dozens of 
state House and Senate races in November. The state Democratic Party 
doesn't traditionally take a stand on ballot measures, and a 
spokeswoman said the party didn't plan to change that when it comes 
to the medical marijuana proposal.

State Republicans opposed medical marijuana in the party's platform 
adopted earlier this year and a spokeswoman said the party opposed 
this measure.

Two of the state's top Democrats - Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney 
General Dustin McDaniel - have said they're voting against the 
measure. But opposition from either party's leaders doesn't 
necessarily mean you'll see elected officials going out of their way 
to talk about it on the campaign trail, especially in legislative 
races focused primarily on issues such as tax cuts and budget issues.

That reluctance shows just how much of a newcomer Arkansas is to the 
medical marijuana debate, and that's a position that makes it more 
difficult to judge it by traditional party lines.

"It just doesn't work on the same continuum that partisan politics 
operates," said Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College.

Or, as University of Arkansas political science professor Janine 
Parry said: "Voters are of two minds or 16 minds in a good many 
places almost every election year."

It's that kind of unpredictability that Arkansas voters are known 
for. This is the same state that in 1968 simultaneously elected 
Republican Winthrop Rockefeller governor, Democrat J. William 
Fulbright senator and gave its electoral votes to American 
Independent nominee George Wallace. More recently, it overwhelmingly 
re-elected Beebe two years ago when voters rejected Democratic Sen. 
Blanche Lincoln's bid for a third term.

With that kind of history, would a state that hands Republicans 
control of the Legislature while legalizing medical marijuana be that 
much of a surprise?
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom