Locals Weigh The Green Option
Arkansas Sen. Randy Laverty, a Democrat from Jasper, may plant a legislative seed in 2011.
In an effort to aid the state's overburdened prisons, Laverty may bring a budding discussion to the state Senate floor on the topic of legalizing medicinal marijuana in Arkansas.
Laverty told The Associated Press legalizing or lessening criminal penalties for marijuana may be one way to "curb overcrowding in Arkansas' prisons."
But District 4 State Sen. Michael Lamoureux said he would be surprised if the issue was turned into a law anytime soon.
"Personally, I am not in favor of legalizing marijuana in any way," Lamoureux, who was elected in a special election earlier this month, said. "I think an approach that may even see more attention is a re-evaluation of length of jail sentences for that particular crime. I think as we struggle with budget cuts and prison overcrowding it will probably be brought up in the 2011 session. I think our priority should be dangerous criminals."
In 2009, Pope County law enforcement agents seized 7,288 pounds of marijuana and 52 cultivated plants, 5th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney David Gibbons said.
"My role is to enforce the law, and marijuana is against the law, so no, I do not think it should be legalized," Gibbons said when asked about his stance on the possibility of legalizing medical marijuana.
Area residents offered differing views on the matter.
Kristie Rhodes of Russellville said Wednesday she doesn't think marijuana should be legal except for certain circumstances.
"I say no to legalizing unless it is for medical reasons like chronic diseases," Rhodes said.
Tony Thompson of Pottsville said he is for the legalization of marijuana.
"I mean look at the benefits," Thompson said Wednesday. "We've got a prime growing area here in Arkansas. It would help farmers and the state financially. We could eliminate debt by taxing the product, and wouldn't have so many in jail that we the taxpayers have to fund. Plus, I think cigarettes are a worse evil and they are legal."
Local law enforcement officials had different views on the matter, but agreed the drug should not be legalized.
"Right now, I wouldn't be in favor of legalizing marijuana," 5th Judicial District Drug Task Force director Larry Johnson said. "People say they use it for medical purposes and I feel like it is something people use just to get high more than just for general aches and pains."
Johnson said local jails are populated with more inmates who have been arrested on methamphetamine charges, not marijuana.
"Honestly, I think we have more of a problem with methamphetamine in our area," Johnson said. "Usually people will have a small amount of marijuana. If they get caught, the first offense for those is just a misdemeanor."
Pope County Sheriff Aaron DuVall said he feels marijuana is a problem because of the quantity being seized on Interstate 40.
"Locally, we see quite a few people arrested with large quantities on I-40," DuVall said.
From a drug rehabilitation standpoint, Gary Rhodes -- the director of Russellville Freedom House who is not related to Kristie Rhodes - -- said marijuana is one of the most frequently used illegal drug with more than 120,000 people entering treatment annually in the United states for marijuana addiction.
"The effects of marijuana can be harmful in a number of ways, through both immediate effects and damage to health over time," Rhodes said. "A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2006 indicated that 42 percent of high school seniors had used marijuana at least once in their lifetime.
"We can only imagine what that percentage would be if marijuana were legalized. Remember, it interferes with the ability to learn and retain information. By legalizing marijuana, we could be setting up future generations for failure as well as increase the abuse by current adult users."
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved smoking marijuana for any condition or disease in the United States. Regardless, 14 states have legalized cannabis for medical use.
"The only time marijuana should be allowed is with the approval of a medical professional that has prescribed it for a patient just as they would prescribe other medications for a specific illness," Gary Rhodes said. "Otherwise, marijuana should remain an illegal substance."
Laverty -- who was unavailable for comment Tuesday and Wednesday -- said he wants to wait for legislative research and data from the Department of Correction before he decides whether to sponsor legislation to lessen or eliminate criminal penalties for the drug.
In a recent legislative hearing, Laverty called for a debate about legalization after asking prison officials how many inmates are in jail on marijuana offenses. Laverty suggested those who use the drug for medical purposes shouldn't be punished.
Area detention center officials said last week they face the difficult task of balancing limited capacity at jails with a steady flow of offenders while operating within an annual budget.
"You've got some on the low end of the spectrum as far as marijuana laws ( that ) probably need to be released," Yell County Bill Gilkey said last week. "At the same time, you've got people dealing that stuff to kids and transporting large quantities.
"I think there's some rehab programs that are good, but I see more results from incarceration."
Nationwide, dozens of states are considering bills ranging from the legalization of medical marijuana to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, measures similar to those found in Eureka Springs and Fayetteville.
Information gathered by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville indicates an initiative to make cannabis "a low police priority" passed in November 2006 in Eureka Springs
The ordinance directs local law enforcement to issue a summons in lieu of a criminal arrest for adults 18 and over found in possession of up to one ounce of cannabis or cannabis paraphernalia. Cannabis offenses are punished by a fine, community service or drug counseling and education, but do not result in an arrest.
In November 2008, the city of Fayetteville made possession of less than one ounce the lowest priority for local law enforcement agencies. Police officials, however, indicated they would continue to enforce marijuana-related laws.
On Wednesday, a Colorado judge ruled residents of the state have a constitutional right to purchase medical marijuana, The Associated Press reported. Colorado approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 allowing medical marijuana.
December 31, 2009