BRENDA BLAGG: Groups who support or oppose Pop County Casino are fighting for the constitutional amendment

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Legalizing recreational marijuana and a proposal to keep a casino out of Pope County could be up for grabs in the Arkansas general election in November.

Petitioners for both issues submitted their signatures to the Foreign Secretary’s office by Friday’s deadline.

Supporters of both proposals submitted more than enough signatures to meet the required 89,151 signatures from voters in at least 15 Arkansas counties to gain access to the Nov. 8 vote.

If you’re curious, that number represents 10 percent of the votes cast in the last general gubernatorial election in 2018.

None of these issues should sound unfamiliar. Petitions for versions of both were circulated in 2020, but initiatives for both, as well as some other proposed citizen initiatives, lagged behind in this first year of the pandemic.

Covid-19 caused numerous public festivals and celebrations to close in 2020, eliminating traditional ways to collect large numbers of signatures. Individuals trying to avoid the virus also tended to avoid petitioners.

The sponsors of both proposals have done the petition work this year, although each is far from actually being eligible to vote.

Both will be considered in the Foreign Secretary’s Opinion and possible legal challenges if allowed.

Still, Responsible Growth Arkansas, the group pushing the recreational marijuana issue, outdid itself in collecting signatures. It says it has submitted 192,828 signatures, more than double what the Arkansans say they want.

The proposal follows voter approval in 2016 of a medical marijuana amendment, which passed by more than 53 percent of the vote.

It took the state a long time to implement the change and license the people who could grow and sell it. But sales seem to have flourished.

The proposed change would grant licenses to grow and distribute adult-use cannabis to companies that already hold medical marijuana licenses. Another 40 licenses would be awarded by lottery.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the folks already licensed to grow and dispense medical marijuana are among the funders of this proposal to legalize recreational cannabis. Full legalization would potentially be a boon to their profits.

There will be resistance, most likely from proponents of a competing recreational marijuana proposal. His supporters didn’t submit signatures by the deadline, but are talking about defeating them so they can put theirs to the vote in two years.

Among other things, the proposed change would allow for the deletion of marijuana-related charges from an individual’s records.

Pope County Casino

Fair Play for Arkansas 2022, sponsors of the proposed amendment to remove Pope County as a potential casino location, submitted 103,096 signatures from 34 different counties.

In 2018, state voters approved Pope County as one of only four counties in the state that could have a casino. Amendment 100 passed with more than 54 percent of the vote.

Counties of Crittenden and Garland, which have existing casinos tied to racetracks, were allowed to expand, while Counties of Pope and Jefferson were allowed for brand new casinos.

Jefferson County wasted no time getting its standalone casino up and running. But Pope has proven more challenging for aspiring developers.

Cherokee Nation Businesses has secured the state casino license for Pope County and 140 acres to build a casino northeast of downtown Russellville. It has donated $1.28 million to the Arkansas Tourism Committee, a group formed to uphold Pope County’s constitutional eligibility as a casino location.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma operates a casino in Pocola, Oklahoma, about 96 miles west of Russellville. It has contributed $2.1 million to the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 Committee, according to financial documents submitted to the state.

There was opposition to having a casino within Pope County from the start, but there was also competition for that casino license, which brought community developers to court.

That support has grown as potential developers have settled their differences in court, drawn up plans for a resort and casino, and sweetened the deal with certain gifts to Russellville, the host community.

But the opponents did not give up the fight. Neither will you.

It was a complicated and protracted battle at city and county government meetings, before state regulators, and in court.

Just as the proposed constitutional amendment allowing these new casinos was passed by people across the state, the proposal to remove Pope County from the text of the constitution will require a statewide vote.

It may be difficult to get voters in the rest of the state as upset as they are in Pope County for or against a casino there, but voters elsewhere will vote for it nonetheless.

That means they will if the amendment actually gets put to the vote.

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