Why would a member of NORML’s National Legal Committee file a lawsuit seeking to get a medical marijuana measure kicked off of Arkansas’s November ballot?
Thats’s the question many cannabis policy observers are asking after Kara Benca, a lifetime member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’s attorneys panel, sued on Friday to invalidate signatures for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act (AMCA).
The measure is one of two separate medical cannabis initiatives that have qualified for the November ballot. It, unlike the competing Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment (AMMA), would allow certified patients to grow medical cannabis at home. It also allows for a broader list of medical conditions that qualify patients for legal access to marijuana.
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.
“We are a small town,” he said. “I’ve worked with them and know them. I don’t think anyone contacted anyone.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML, said his organization has not “picked a side among these dueling initiatives.”
Asked whether Benca should be able to retain her status on the organization’s Legal Committee after attempting to block voters from deciding whether to allow medical marijuana homegrow, Armentano said he wasn’t previously familiar with the attorney, who is one of more than 600 who have paid dues in order to be listed on the organization’s site.
“I have raised this as a matter of concern to other senior staff, as well as those on the ground in Arkansas, and I would imagine the matter will be formally discussed ASAP some time next week,” he said.
Norm Kent, the vice-chair of NORML’s Board of Directors, told Marijuana.com that he would add the issue as a “discussion item to our agenda for this month’s Board meeting in Boston.”
It costs $5,000 to become a lifetime member of the NORML Legal Committee, a status which comes with several benefits including a search-engine-friendly listing that puts attorneys in front of potential clients.
“NLC members are listed on NORML’s popular webpage, where the victims of marijuana prohibition, their friends and family can turn to find competent and compassionate attorneys, especially those who specialize in criminal and drug defense work,” reads an appeal co-authored by Kent.
Public support for medical marijuana in Arkansas is broad, polling shows. In the only publicly available survey comparing the two measures, AMCA outperformed Couch’s AMMA by five percentage points.
Couch told Marijuana.com that he has internal polling showing the opposite result, but refused to share the data.
Benca’s suit, filed before the Arkansas Supreme Court, claims that the AMCA team didn’t comply with state petition collection and verification rules and, as a result, at least 15,000 of their signatures are invalid. If the court agrees with the claims, the measure would no longer have enough signatures to qualify.
Advocates have raised concerns about voter confusion that could arise from two similar but separate measures dealing with a single topic appearing on the same ballot. They are worried that if all medical cannabis supporters don’t end up voting for both measures and instead pick only the one they prefer, the votes could be split and a majority won’t be achieved for either initiative.
Couch told Marijuana.com that national marijuana policy reform advocates like Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Graham Boyd of New Approach PAC tried to get him to drop his AMMA effort after AMCA qualified.
In 2012, Arkansas voters narrowly defeated a medical marijuana initiative that was run by roughly the same team behind this year’s AMCA effort. MPP provided funding to both efforts.
“Rob Kampia is to blame for this mess,” Couch said. “His arrogance cost us in 2012 and it might cost us this time. The Supreme Court will decide if [AMCA’s campaign] followed the rules. I did.”
Couch said that he informed Kampia of problems with AMCA’s signatures in April.
“He blew me off and orchestrated [AMCA’s] early turn in and press conferences demanding I stand down,” he said. “If I stood down – it’s taken off ballot the people have no choice.”
Benca’s lawsuit is the second that has been filed against AMCA. A group of medical cannabis opponents filed a separate case last week asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to stop the state from counting or certifying the results of the measure after it is voted on in November. Advocates have asked the court to dismiss the case.
There is uncertainty about what would happen if both measures are approved by voters on Election Day.
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.