LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Supreme Court decision to keep medical marijuana's legalization on the ballot introduces some unpredictability to the November election and shifts attention to an issue that might not be easily defined by party labels.
That's no small feat for an Arkansas election dominated by predictability when it comes to national politics and partisan bickering when it comes to the state level. With Republicans aiming to win control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, this may be one of the few issues where Arkansas voters won't hew to traditional party lines.
That's a situation supporters and opponents of the proposed initiated act are counting on after justices last week rejected a lawsuit challenging the ballot measure. The unanimous decision means Arkansas will be the first southern state to ask its voters whether to legalize the drug for medical purposes.
Both sides of the issue say they're counting on help from both parties to win the debate.
"The support is not as divisive as you would think," said Chris Kell, campaign strategist for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group pushing for the act's passage. "I'm getting as much or more help from Republicans as from Democrats."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some fashion, and three states are expected to vote this year on the drug's full-scale legalization. But the debate hasn't been waged in the South, where putting measures on the ballot is more difficult and with conservative legislators throughout the region unlikely to take up the matter on their own.
"I think it's a sign that marijuana policy reform is an idea that is coming of age now across the nation, rather than just in the states where we've seen it so far," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, which has contributed most of the money for the Arkansas effort. "It's really an important moment."
Opponents of the measure already have an active network of church leaders and other conservatives in place from past ballot fights, including the successful 2004 campaign to ban gay marriage in the state. But after losing a bid to strike the measure from the November ballot, opponents say they've got to build a coalition that goes beyond the conservative activists they've relied on for those campaigns.
"I think the success of our campaign against this measure is going to hinge more than most campaigns on our ability or someone's ability to mobilize coalitions that don't normally work together to oppose this measure," said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council and a member of the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values.
Cox said that includes reaching out to law enforcement and medical officials that he says could speak out against the act.
The big unknown is just how big of a role either party will play in the debate, especially with so much attention focused on dozens of state House and Senate races in November. The state Democratic Party doesn't traditionally take a stand on ballot measures, and a spokeswoman said the party didn't plan to change that when it comes to the medical marijuana proposal.
State Republicans opposed medical marijuana in the party's platform adopted earlier this year and a spokeswoman said the party opposed this measure.
Two of the state's top Democrats - Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel - have said they're voting against the measure. But opposition from either party's leaders doesn't necessarily mean you'll see elected officials going out of their way to talk about it on the campaign trail, especially in legislative races focused primarily on issues such as tax cuts and budget issues.
That reluctance shows just how much of a newcomer Arkansas is to the medical marijuana debate, and that's a position that makes it more difficult to judge it by traditional party lines.
"It just doesn't work on the same continuum that partisan politics operates," said Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College.
Or, as University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry said: "Voters are of two minds or 16 minds in a good many places almost every election year."
It's that kind of unpredictability that Arkansas voters are known for. This is the same state that in 1968 simultaneously elected Republican Winthrop Rockefeller governor, Democrat J. William Fulbright senator and gave its electoral votes to American Independent nominee George Wallace. More recently, it overwhelmingly re-elected Beebe two years ago when voters rejected Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln's bid for a third term.
With that kind of history, would a state that hands Republicans control of the Legislature while legalizing medical marijuana be that much of a surprise?
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo
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