When it comes to ballot initiatives, David Couch is a numbers man: for instance, 58 in 2020.
In early March Couch, who's authored or campaigned for more than 20 ballot initiatives, told those gathered at a Rotary Club 99 luncheon that he has ballot language all ready for a personal use or "recreational" marijuana amendment. It's just sitting on his computer.
He just needs to see the question poll at or above 58 percent in Arkansas. Then he will introduce it — the next available presidential election.
"If you ask the generic question, 'Should Arkansas legalize and tax marijuana for personal use?' You’re bumping up around 52-53 is where it floats right now."
He won't say what polling firm he draws on to arrive at that except to say it's more than one outfit; they poll nationally but can carve out Arkansas results; they're not based here, and his figure incorporates known statewide polls such as The Arkansas Poll and those for Hendrix College/Talk Business and Politics.
He also said his draft differs little from his successful Issue 6, later initiated Act 98. That is, marijuana would still be illegal to grow at home ("On the medical marijuana issue, that was a killer. It made a 10-point difference" in acceptability.) It would still be supplied by private industry regulated by the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Division. Most importantly, there would still be medical marijuana because "you want to keep medical users intact because we shouldn’t tax people for medicine," whereas personal-use marijuana would be taxed consistently with alcohol and cigarettes.
Such an end to prohibition polls in the low 50s, he says — 58 percent is the majority the amendment would need because people vote "downward" on the issue.
"You know, people don't want to take a position that's not the same as their neighbor," he says.
Couch’s old sparring partner from 2016, The Family Council’s Jerry Cox, says his research suggests there's a bigger hurdle in front of personal use than Couch perceives.
"We did some polling just before the 2016 election, and we found that a majority of the people of Arkansas supported what they believed was medical marijuana. In fact, probably 65 percent [did]. However, when we asked about recreational marijuana, those numbers almost flipped. Where 65 or 70 percent said 'No, we don’t support recreational marijuana.' Because at that time, they thought there was something mysteriously different between medical marijuana and recreational. Well, there’s not."
"The sad part is, people who shouldn't be using it are. What I'm talking about? Kids. People in high school. It's going to find its way more and more into our schools.
"That's just one area, not to mention the loss in productivity, the loss in ambition. Those of us who know people who use marijuana know they lose their initiative. They lose their ambition. They're not likely to put out very much work when they go to their jobs, and they're not likely to do well in school either. There's abundant evidence of that, but these people don't care about that."
These people, Cox said, come in from California and Colorado. They're locked in on expanding the market, maximizing profit.
To do this, they've used David Couch, he said.
THE COLORADO EXAMPLE
Cox expressly named Colorado as an example where marijuana use has surged, and kids have suffered.
Dr. Larry Wolk is executive director and chief medical officer of Colorado's Department of Public Health. He said the legalization of first medical marijuana, and then recreational marijuana more than five years ago, has not produced "significant impacts" on public health or public safety, he said.
In fact, in a survey of data he and colleagues published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015, teen use of marijuana ticked down slightly in places, perhaps, he said, because of successful "aversion" messaging campaigns targeted at teens warning, for example, that marijuana use would get in the way of sports, an afterschool job, and their schooling, perhaps even college.
"One of the things I like to point out as a medical doctor, when you legalize marijuana, you're not starting from zero. One out of four adults were using marijuana, and one out of five kids were using marijuana, prior to legalization," he said.
"I think there's this fear that you're starting from no use whatsoever to now, suddenly, it's everywhere."
From his perspective, alcohol use is a greater threat both to human health and public safety.
THE ARKANSAS LAG
Couch makes that connection a lot — marijuana should be taxed like alcohol, policed like alcohol, and regulated.
This year, another six states have active recreational marijuana efforts underway. A seventh, Vermont, just passed a bill making all marijuana OK to grow and keep beginning this summer.
The Arkansas Poll, an annual survey of 800 Arkansans, last year asked about marijuana legalization, and only 47% support it, though that’s four points higher than those opposed to it.
University of Arkansas political scientist Janine Parry, who directs the poll, says marijuana decriminalization and a statewide end to marijuana prohibition may be two different things to survey respondents. Actually, the survey question is part of a battery of quick questions meant to measure ideology — it wasn't, strictly speaking, aimed at gauging interest in a personal-use push.
But "it is going up," she said of the trend toward marijuana legalization, "but at a rate slower than, and later than, the rest of America. I think that’s the best way to put it.
"I guess it’s Hal Holbrook borrowing from Mark Twain, saying that when the world ends we should be in Arkansas because everything here happens 20 years later. We can expect the same thing on marijuana policy."
Couch says he’ll sell the amendment someday on the promise of tourism and tax receipts of $125 million. It’s also important to him that past criminality be forgiven.
"We want to make sure everybody that's ever been convicted of that crime in the past has their crime forgiven and their records expunged."
For now, Couch’s recreational marijuana amendment will stay on his computer, waiting for public opinion to catch up with his plans.