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Is Arkansas ready for medical marijuana?

Is Arkansas ready for medical marijuana? (MGN Online)

Current polling data suggests that a medical marijuana initiative has a good chance of passing in November. According to a Talk Business and Politics poll, nearly 60 percent of Arkansas support legalizing medical marijuana.

But for states that have already legalized medical marijuana, there has been some growing pains. Many professionals are finding themselves in uncharted territory.

"We have 25 states to go to and say, 'How did you do this?' So that we do it right," said campaign director Melissa Fulchs.

Those are the answers Arkansans for Compassionate Care are searching for, now that their amendment is on the ballot.

This amendment will have ramifications for companies and organizations across Arkansas, which is why many are beginning to ask questions about the impact medical marijuana could have.

More than half of the United States now allow for medical marijuana. But because it remains illegally federally, several have run into problems, particularly when it comes to the banks.

Under anti-money laundering statutes, banks must treat marijuana companies like illegal entities. If a bank serves one, they could be shut down.

"No marijuana business can have a checking account, or a deposit account, debit card, credit card, or access to the payment system at all, because the federal system rules," explains Arkansas Bankers Association president Bill Holmes.

Marijuana dispensaries also can't take out loans, rent at a building under mortgage, or pay taxes using the normal methods. In fact, they must operate entirely, "cash and cash only."

This makes marijuana facilities targets for crimes. Holmes says that in states that have legalized some form of marijuana, "there was a run on warehouse space, I know guard services, and armored cars services went up almost immediately."

"The bank's concern on that is that we have that market, we want our communities to be safe, we certainly want our small businesses to be safe, and to thrive," says Holmes. "It's not a good situation when you have to haul cash everywhere."

But they say their hands are tied. In June, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would allow legal marijuana business to access banking services. It's now in front of the House.

Amendments like this have historically failed, both in 2013 and 2015. But ACC is hoping the third time will be the charm: "The federal government has got to change their laws."

Arkansas police departments are also looking both to the federal government and to other states for guidance on the new initiative. They're concerned about the lack of standards, particularly when it comes to driving while high on marijuana.

Only six states have set a legal limit for the psychoactive element of marijuana--known as tetrahydracannabinol or THC.

And a AAA study says these limits are not necessarily a good measure of impairment--as THC typically stays in a person's system between seven and 21 days after using.

Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane says that in Arkansas, high driving is determined "based on driver action and what's in their system."

Putting police in a position where they're forced to make judgment calls. And furthermore lengthening the testing process, as police are required to get a search warrant for a blood draw in order to do a THC test.

"Whereas the arrest of a DWI suspect for alcohol may take an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes, you're looking at four to six hours for the arrest of a DRE suspect."

It makes it hard for medical marijuana users to know if they're legally safe to drive.

This is one reason the Surgeon General is concerned. Between car accidents, accidental ingestion, and contraindications, Dr. Greg Bledsoe is worried about the strain it may put on the Arkansas Medical System.

"My concern is that you take this public health system that's already been stretched to the max, and you add on top of this a drug that is going to cause more traumas most certainly, is going to precipitate psychiatric disease... I think is going to worsen and create more stress for our public health infrastructure at a time when we can't afford it."

During the four-year period where only medical marijuana dispensaries were able to operate in Colorado, there was an 82 percent increase in marijuana related emergency room visits, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health.

But Arkansans for Compassionate Care says the situation is a matter of perspective: "Most of the states that have legalized it for medical use, even their medical bills have gone down for the state," explains Melissa Fulchs. "It has saved the state money."

Both say that medical marijuana will impact the state's healthcare resources, but it's hard to know how until it passes. For the time being, the Arkansas Department of Health says they will "not be altering services to prepare or practice for the legalization," until they know if any measure will pass.

At the Wolfe House--an alcohol and addiction meeting facility in Little Rock--they're preparing not only for medical marijuana, but also recreational legalization.

"I think it's a slippery slope and that if we are more and more accepting and that if we open the door to what maybe used for medical purposes, that the stigma and taboo of using a drug is lessened," says Dr. Caroline Folds, executive director. She is advocating "caution, awareness, and conversations."

The Wolfe Street Foundation holds that societal acceptance and genetic pre-disposition may set certain young people and adults up for addiction, "Anybody with an addictive personality, it's going to affect them," explains James Bowling, operations director at Wolfe Street. "It's no different than barbiturates or prescriptions."

And while Melissa Fulchs agrees that's a risk, she says the benefits for medical refugees and those currently in pain, outweigh the costs: "There are people that are overweight... Are you going to get rid of chocolate and sugar? No. You can't get rid of what is good just because there are a few people that are going to do bad with it."

The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act is currently the only initiative guaranteed a spot on the ballot. The Secretary of State's office is currently counting signatures for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.

If either of these acts pass, the state will have 180 to days to start answering these questions and instituting policies for banks, police, and hospitals.

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