By Larry Page, Executive Director • Arkansas Faith & Ethics Council
Out of the four proposed state constitutional amendments that will appear on November’s general election ballot, two of those amendments — the “Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment” and the “Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative” — are clearly in our wheelhouse.
Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment
A few legislative sessions back, the state legislature passed a religious protection law modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Registration Act (RFRA) that was passed in 1993 and signed into law by President Clinton. The proposed amendment is needed to bolster the protections afforded for the exercise of religious liberties and make it more difficult to circumvent those cherished and venerated freedoms.
Also, a constitutional amendment takes precedence over statutes and ordinances, making its provisions less susceptible to changes a future legislature might seek to make to dilute its provisions and enervate its effectiveness. The passage of this amendment will make it more likely to stand the test of time and maintain its viability.
To better understand the relevant provisions of the amendment we can look at the summary of its purposes found in its ballot title. “…government may never burden a person’s freedom of religion except in the rare circumstance that the government demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.”
To stay out of the legal weeds, let’s say that the amendment is intended to “guarantee that the freedom of religion is not burdened by state and local law” and “provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious freedom is burdened by government.”
Without the means of defending against the usurpation of our religious liberties, we could be at the mercy of courts and government officials — both elected and appointed — who don’t see the intrinsic and indispensable value of the fundamental rights of religious liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment provide.
Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative
Where you read “cannabis” in the name of the amendment, think marijuana — high potency, harmful and dangerous marijuana. Where you read “adult use,” know the results — whether purposeful or unintended — will be a dramatic increase in the percentages of young people using the drug and becoming dependent and, in some cases, addicted to it.
Some of the more salient reasons that just about the last thing our state and its people need is for a few marijuana growers and sellers to have a monopoly and virtually unfettered license to market their dangerous wares. First, the amendment will not allow the state legislature or any local government body to enact laws to control the marijuana business.
Marijuana today is not the marijuana of the 1970s. People who wrongly believe that marijuana is not a big deal simply are woefully uninformed and that lack of knowledge is dangerous in this context. In the 70s, the concentration of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, was roughly 1-3%. Over the years, the plant has been genetically engineered to contain a greater percentage of THC and was 17.1% in 2017 (up from 8.9% in 2008).
The percentage of THC continues to climb. In THC concentrates, like gummies and edibles (that are particularly enticing to children and very harmful when consumed by them), the concentration of THC reached 55.7% in 2017. This relentless demand for stronger marijuana is fraught with danger. The following bullet point statements are an attempt to bring some of the more significant problems to light, but suffice it to say, there is a large amount of accurate, reliable and empirical evidence to make a solid case against the legalization of recreational marijuana. What follows is just a small sampling. However, the evidence I speak of is readily available and accessible, so one should avail himself of it.
• Mental and physical health can suffer. Marijuana has been shown in studies to be significantly linked to psychosis, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety. Daily users of potent marijuana have four times the odds of developing psychosis.
Researchers have found a connection between marijuana use and lung damage, and cardiovascular ailments, including hypertension, myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke and cardiac arrest.
• The legalization of marijuana has led to increasing numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and calls to poison control centers. Consider the state of Colorado after legalization: a 54% increase in emergency room visits in four years; a 101% increase annually in hospitalizations during that same four-year period; pediatric marijuana exposure was commonplace, even though the state had mandated childproof packaging and warning labels, with a 140% increase in one eight-year period; from 2010 to 2014 the cases of Cannabis Hypertension Syndrome increased 46% and experienced at least two deaths caused by the condition.
• The legalization of marijuana has seen increased use among the young. In legal states, the young purchase it by circumventing the law — often with sellers’ inattention to detail and carelessness in checking identification and age or by accessing the black market for marijuana — which tends to flourish in the legal states. Increases in the percentage of young people using marijuana in legal states far exceeds that in states where it remains illegal.
• Legalization is often cited as a prime means of undercutting crime. The statistics don’t bear that out. Crime rates in states that have legalized marijuana have risen at a much faster rate than in non-legal states. For example, the black market for marijuana in California has a three-to-one advantage in sales over the legal market.
Again, consider Colorado: that state’s crime rate in 2016 grew 11 times faster than 30 of the country’s 30 largest cities since legalization; in 2018 the state’s Bureau of Investigation reported a 14.2% increase in property crime and a 36.5% increase in violent crime since 2013; neighborhoods near marijuana dispensaries in Denver saw an 84% increase each year in crime, compared to neighborhoods with no dispensary nearby; marijuana-related charges brought under the state’s Organized Crime Control Act increased by 639% between 2013 and 2017.
Space here doesn’t permit details about other categories, but the reliable research and resulting data confirm that marijuana legalization has harmful impacts on young adults, minority and low-income populations, the workplace, the homeless, the environment and leads to increases in impaired driving.
For the reasons set out above and so many, many more, Arkansas voters should roundly defeat the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment in November’s general election and protect our people, particularly the young, and enhance the quality of life for our families, our communities and our state.