NORML Attorney’s Lawsuit Sinks Arkansas Medical Marijuana Initiative

In a stunning 5-2 ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court has disqualified Issue 7, one of two medical marijuana proposals on the November ballot, just twelve days prior to the election and following over 142,000 early votes already received.

Supreme Court of Arkansas: Kara L. Benca, petitioner, challenges the sufficiency of signatures counted by the respondent, the Honorable Mark Martin, Arkansas Secretary of State, in the statewide initiative ballot petition entitled “The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act,” which is on the November 8, 2016 ballot. The proposed Act is sponsored by intervenor, Arkansans for Compassionate Care 2016. Because we conclude that the total number of signatures which should have been counted by respondent falls below the statutory minimum, we grant the petition.

Kara L. Benca is a lifetime member of the NORML Legal Committee, the marijuana defense attorneys’ referral service run by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Last month, in NORML’s endorsement of Issue 7, NORML Founder and Legal Counsel Keith Stroup disavowed the organization’s relationship to the lawsuit, but was silent on Benca’s continuing status on the Committee.

Also, one misguided defense attorney, apparently acting as a surrogate for the sponsors of the Constitutional amendment, has filed suit against the Act that had previously qualified, challenging their signatures. The misguided individual alleged in her law suit that she is a NORML Legal Committee Life Member (although she did not allege that NORML has joined or supported her suit), but she does not attempt to explain why she would oppose a well-drafted medical use initiative that appears to have a good chance to be approved by the voters.

The NORML board of directors wanted to make it clear that NORML is not involved in this suit, nor do we think it is a helpful strategy.

As of press time, Benca’s credentials are still listed on the NORML website. As a Lifetime Member, her credentials appear first in the listings if someone visits lawyers.norml.org/arkansas, the site that appears first in the Google searches for “marijuana attorney arkansas” and “marijuana lawyer arkansas“.

Ryan Denham, spokesperson for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the campaign behind Issue 7, issued a brief statement via Facebook:

We’re not giving up!

Supreme Court just ruled, we are kicked off the ballot. We’re going to fight this and appeal in court. But we need to think what’s best for the patients. In the meantime we need to tell people to vote for both. If we win court case, then we’ll still be getting 7 votes and if we lose we don’t tank 6. I know it’s a painful call, but it’s the best option for patients. 6 is better than nothing. And if both fail, patients will have to wait years. Please share!

When asked for comment, Stroup responded by email to Weed News with the following statement:

NORML was disappointed when we learned that an attorney who is a member of the NORML Legal Committee had filed a challenge to one of the two pending medical use initiatives in Arkansas, and we were further disappointed to learn today that the Arkansas Supreme Court had disqualified that initiative for a lack of adequate signatures. Of the two initiatives, the one that was disqualified today was clearly the better alternative, covering more conditions and diseases, and allowing some home cultivation.

However, having two competing medical use initiatives on the ballot was a situation likely to split the reform vote and assure that neither would have been approved by the voters. Now that the voters will have only one medical use initiative on the ballot, the likelihood of that initiative being approved should be greater.

NORML Deputy Director, Paul Armentano, in an emailed statement to Weed News, was clear that the national organization in no way supported Benca’s lawsuit.

These sort of scorched Earth tactics are in no way endorsed by national NORML, which had endorsed the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act while remaining neutral on the Amendment. Ultimately, the decision with regard to which proposal is best for Arkansas patients ought to be in the hands of Arkansas voters, not the Courts.

Weed News asked Stroup directly whether Benca would be sanctioned or dismissed from the Legal Committee for thwarting a reform of marijuana laws. Stroup responded by email that Benca would face no reprisals whatsoever for her actions.

The NORML Legal Committee is comprised of attorneys with differing political viewpoints, and all are entitled to their First Amendment right to free speech, even if it is speech that the organization does not agree with. The attorney who brought the suit did it in her own name; she did not claim to represent the organization. So we do not expect to take any action from the national level.

Issue 7 was hailed by NORML’s Board as “a more consumer-friendly proposal” than the competing Issue 6, a constitutional amendment for medical marijuana that still remains on the ballot. “This second proposal is far more restrictive than the first in terms of the list of conditions for which marijuana could be recommended,” wrote Stroup (emphasis in the original), “and does not permit personal cultivation.”

Tom Angell at Marijuana.com reported on the Benca lawsuit and questioned whether the proponents of Issue 6 were behind Benca’s lawsuit.

David Couch, the Little Rock attorney behind the more restrictive AMMA, admitted to Marijuana.com that he “provided information” to support Benca’s suit, but didn’t respond directly to questions about whether he merely complied with requests for help or was involved in initiating the case from the beginning.

Early voting has already started in Arkansas, but the votes for Issue 7 will not be tallied. Associated Press reported that the court invalidated enough signatures to disqualify Issue 7 from the ballot.

Justices tossed out more than 12,000 signatures that were approved by election officials for the proposal, saying supporters didn’t comply with laws regarding registration and reporting of paid canvassers. The decision left the group nearly 2,500 signatures shy of what was needed to qualify for the ballot.

Arkansans for Compassionate Care have issued the following official response:

Issue 7 removed from ballot by State Supreme Court – ACC vows to keep fighting for patients rights.

Issue 7 redirects thousands of grassroots volunteers to support both initiatives

This morning the Supreme Court of Arkansas handed down their decision in CV-16-185, disqualifying the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act for vote.

ACC needed valid signatures from 8 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial general election; 67,887 signatures of registered voters are required in order for the Ballot Measure to be placed on the November 8, 2016, general election ballot. Of the 117, 547 signatures submitted, 77, 516 were validated by the Arkansas Secretary of State. Kara Benca needed to invalidate 9,629 to have issue 7 removed from the ballot. It is important to note that because the Arkansans for Compassionate Care had more than the number of required signatures at the time of submission and validation, they were not allowed to continue collecting.

It is painfully clear that Arkansas has work ahead to improve health care considerations for the sick and dying in our state. There is no denying that the combination of big money and strategic use of the law have been determining factors in this decision, and as compassionate Arkansans, we need to consider what’s best for patients. The sponsors of the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act will fight this decision, but the priority for compassionate Arkansans is and has always been that patients have safe access to medical cannabis. We encourage Arkansans to take a stand for democracy using your vote as your voice for yes to medical cannabis patients (to vote) yes on both Issue 7 and Issue 6, ensuring that there will be lawful protection for medical cannabis patients.

“It’s not easy reversing 80 years of cannabis prohibition. ACC placed a medical cannabis law on the ballot in 2012 and we were narrowly defeated. We came back with an army of volunteers and successfully placed Issue 7 on the ballot. We’ve been up against many hurdles including the Governor, Attorney General, Surgeon General, a competing campaign and two lawsuits. We will keep fighting, ensure that no patient faces arrest for using a safe and effective medicine, whether that protection comes from Issue 6 or Issue 7.” Said Ryan Denham, Deputy Director of Issue 7.

This post has been updated to include statements from Arkansans for Compassionate Care, NORML’s Legal Counsel Keith Stroup, and NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano.

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 199 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Marijuana Agenda, a live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on MJAgenda.com.  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 70 North American cities.