Few surprises are expected on Election Day in solidly Republican Arkansas, where Donald Trump’s former press secretary is heavily favored in the governor’s race and other GOP candidates are considered locks.
But one big exception is the campaign to make Arkansas the first state in the South to legalize recreational marijuana. A proposal to change the state constitution is drawing millions of dollars from opponents and supporters of legalization, and ads are flooding the airwaves.
President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that he will forgive thousands of people for simply possessing marijuana has shed new light on legalization efforts in Arkansas and four other states. Voters in Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota are also taking measures for recreational marijuana.
Biden’s move to decriminalize the drug could provide a push for legalization in some of the most conservative parts of the country, experts say.
“The most powerful elected leader in the world has publicly stated that it was a mistake to criminalize people for using cannabis, and I think that will go a long way in terms of voters who may be on the fence,” said Mason Tvert, a partner at VS. Cannabis strategies, policy and public relations firm.
Biden’s announcement only covers people convicted under federal law. But he urged governors to issue similar pardons for those convicted of state marijuana offenses, which reflect the vast majority of marijuana possession cases. The president also directed his health secretary and attorney general to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
The moves come as opposition to legalization has softened across the country, with recreational marijuana legal in 19 states, despite resistance at the federal level. Advocates say it shows the states are ahead of the federal government on the issue.
“I think it’s an example of leadership at the state level and citizens pushing the federal government in the right direction,” said Eddie Armstrong, a former state lawmaker who heads the Arkansas Responsible Growth Group, which is campaigning for legalization.
In 2016, Arkansas became the first Bible Belt state to legalize medical marijuana, and voters approved a legalization measure. More than 91,000 people have cards to legally buy marijuana at state-licensed dispensaries that opened in 2019. Patients have spent more than $200 million so far this year, the state says.
President Joe Biden has announced plans to pardon all those federally convicted of simple possession of marijuana. News4’s Dominique Moody reports on how this will affect DC residents.
The Responsible Growth Arkansas ad points to benefits such as the thousands of jobs it says legalization would create. A major group opposing the measure is running an ad urging voters to “protect Arkansas from big marijuana.”
The proposal faces opposition from Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration who criticized Biden’s clemency announcement. Former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, the Republican nominee to succeed Hutchinson, said she would vote against the measure. Her Democratic rival, Chris Jones, said he supports it.
In neighboring Missouri, a proposed constitutional amendment would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older and erase records of past arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenses, except for sale to minors or driving under the influence.
Supporters said they don’t expect Biden’s announcement of a pardon for some federal marijuana offenses to have much of an impact on the Missouri measure, which could eliminate several hundred thousand marijuana offenses in the state.
“There is some potential for confusion, but I think most people understand the difference between the federal and state processes,” said John Payne, campaign manager for Legal Missouri 2022.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican and former sheriff, opposes the ballot measure but has not campaigned aggressively against it. He has no plans to emulate Biden’s pardon announcement.
Parson has granted pardons to “individuals who demonstrate a changed lifestyle, a commitment to rehabilitation, contrition and contribution to their communities — rather than a blanket approach to undermining existing law,” Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said.
Similarly, North Dakota’s legalization campaign doesn’t expect to include Biden’s pardons in its messaging. Mark Friese, treasurer of the New Approach Initiative, which supports the legalization ballot proposal, said he doubts Biden’s pardon will have much impact in North Dakota or affect legalization efforts.
“The number of North Dakotans convicted in federal court is small,” said Friese, a prominent North Dakota attorney and former police officer. “Small amounts of marijuana are typically and historically not prosecuted in North Dakota.”
Matt Schwiech, who is leading a ballot campaign in South Dakota to legalize the recreational possession of marijuana for adults, said the president’s pardons could give a boost to the campaign among older Democrats. It also underscores the campaign’s message that weed convictions hurt people’s job or rental applications, and that weed enforcement is a waste of law enforcement time and resources, he said.
South Dakotans, including a sizable number of Republicans, voted to legalize marijuana possession in 2020, but that law was struck down by the state Supreme Court in part because the proposal combined medical marijuana and hemp. This year, recreational pot stands on its own as it goes before the voters.
It remains unclear whether Biden’s pardon move will inject partisan politics into an issue that supporters say crosses party lines. For example, in 2016, Arkansas voters approved medical marijuana, the same year they overwhelmingly endorsed Trump.
All of the states with recreational marijuana on the ballot next month except Maryland voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election. And the issue is coming before voters as GOP candidates ramp up their anti-crime rhetoric.
“From our perspective, the people of Arkansas didn’t vote for Biden to begin with, and so we don’t expect this to really have any impact on anybody’s decision,” said Tyler Beaver, campaign manager for Safe and Secure Communities, the main group campaigning against proposals.
Associated Press writers David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri; Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota; contributed to this report.
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