Medical marijuana supporters speak in downtown Fayetteville

Lymphoma survivor Emily Williams speaks on the Fayetteville square while her husband, Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams, watches during a news conference in support of Issue 5, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act.

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

With less than a week remaining before the Nov. 6 general election, residents on both sides of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act (aka Issue 5) are working to gain support for their respective campaigns.

About 25 people attended a medical marijuana news conference on the Fayetteville downtown square Tuesday, including several medical professionals and two cancer survivors, all in support of the measure.

Backers say medical marijuana would help provide relief to patients suffering from chronic conditions, but opponents worry that legalizing the drug would enable easier access for those with no legitimate need.

Ryan Denham, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said that while he shares some of the concerns of those against the measure, the Arkansas act “is the most comprehensive and tightly regulated marijuana law ever drafted.”

Denham’s group organized a signature drive, fought a post-drive legal battle, and spearheaded support to get the measure on the statewide ballot.

Denham said the major difference between Arkansas’ proposal and some of the medical marijuana laws passed in 17 other states is that it will be regulated by the Arkansas Department of Health.

If passed, the proposal would legalize the medical use of marijuana for people suffering from any of 15 specific medical conditions including multiple sclerosis (MS), Crohn’s disease, hepatitis C, AIDS, glaucoma and cancer.

The drug would be made available through 30 non-profit medical dispensaries throughout the state; for patients who have obtained written permission from an Arkansas physician and an ID card from the Department of Health; and in quantities of no more than 2.5 ounces in a 15-day period for each patient.

The measure would also allow patients to grow up to a half-dozen one-foot-tall medical marijuana plants if they live more than five miles from a dispensary.

Breast cancer survivor Kathy Reynolds speaks during the Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

Emily Williams, a Fayetteville resident and lymphoma survivor, said marijuana was the only drug to provide any relief from the severe nausea she experienced during an 18-week chemotherapy treatment, a symptom that made it nearly impossible for her to eat.

“Without medical marijuana, I would have spent that 18 weeks dying, basically,” she said Tuesday. “None of the legal pharmaceuticals worked for what I was going through.”

Bella Vista resident Kathy Reynolds shared a similar story. Reynolds said she was unable to eat for nearly three months during her battle with breast cancer due to pain caused by a bone marrow transplant.

Like Williams, Reynolds turned to a friend for marijuana after several prescribed pain medications failed to provide any relief.

“After I had it, it was as if a miracle had happened for me,” she said. “I was able to eat and keep food down.”

Williams and Reynolds said they hoped stories like theirs would help draw support for Issue 5.

“I really don’t want to ever see anybody else be put at risk of going into jail for helping a friend to survive an illness like I had,” said Reynolds.

About 25 people attended Tuesday’s event, including several medical professionals and two cancer survivors.

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

The Arkansans for Compassionate Care group ramped up its efforts this month touting endorsements from 12 clergy leaders and more than 70 Arkansas physicians who support the measure.

Chris Kell, a campaign strategist for the committee, said Monday if passed, the measure would generate an estimated $10 million a year in new state sales tax revenue and create 500 new jobs. Those numbers are based on a recent Health Department estimate that 45,000 Arkansas patients would benefit from a medical marijuana program.

Opponents of the measure maintain that legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes would help put marijuana into the wrong hands.

Jerry Cox, leader of the Family Council Action Committee, said Tuesday the program could lead to “marijuana vending machines” which he said are used at dispensaries in California.

“It’s just yet another way to put more marijuana in the hands of the public,” said Cox (Note: Cox was sued following these statements).

Supporters fired back Tuesday afternoon.

“That’s simply not true, medical marijuana is only allowed to be dispensed in one of 30 licensed, non-profit dispensaries,” said David Couch, legal counsel for Arkansans for Compassionate Care. “This would not be allowed in Arkansas, unless it was approved by the Arkansas Department of Health.”

While personal possession of marijuana remains a federal crime in all 50 states, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said federal officials would not go after those who are staying within the confines of their states’ medical marijuana laws.

“We limit our enforcement efforts to those individuals, organizations that are acting out of conformity with state law,” said Holder during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.