State surgeon general warns signature drives expected in coming months

Twin Lakes Area residents should refuse to sign any marijuana petitions they are presented with in the coming year, state and local officials said Tuesday night.

Multiple proposed petitions either decriminalizing marijuana or allowing its recreational use are expected to be circulated around the state in the coming months, and those petitions were the subject of an anti-recreational marijuana meeting Tuesday night organized by State Rep. Nelda Speaks of Mountain Home.

Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Gregory Bledsoe, 14th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney David Ethredge and Eaton plant manager Kate Wright all spoke about the dangers of recreational marijuana at Tuesday night’s meeting, which was held in the Eastside Baptist Church’s sanctuary. State Sen. Scott Flippo welcomed a crowd of about 25 people to the event, which also included prerecorded remarks from Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Approved by Arkansas voters in the fall of 2016, Amendment 98 allows patients 21 and older suffering from a qualifying medical condition to purchase marijuana from 32 state-licensed dispensaries located around the state.

Any petition to place recreational marijuana legislation on the ballot would require supporters to collect 89,151 signatures from registered Arkansas voters by late summer to make it onto the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

“This is not about health. This is not about a cancer patient at the end of his rope and  looking for pain medication,” Bledsoe said. “This is about money. Big, big money.”

In 2019, venture capitalists are estimated to have invested $2.5 billion nationwide in marijuana-related industries, Bledsoe said. Next year, nationwide marijuana sales are projected to be more than $15 billion.

“When you look at this, who is paying these people to canvass and get the signatures?” Bledsoe asked. “Who is paying people to run television ads? Who is paying these people to go all over the state and do this huge PR campaign on behalf of marijuana? Well, someone is paying for it. If you stop and think about it, it is people spending millions of dollars because they will make tens of millions of dollars if it passes.”

Ethredge said he has prosecuted several thousand people that had used methamphetamine, and he had never spoken to one of them that had not first used marijuana before turning to meth.

“It’s the place where they start. It allows a foothold to move in that direction,” he said. “If we allow this on the ballot, we’re giving them one more foothold to get to things that harm people. This is opening a door to more illegal activity. It’s opening a door to get people involved in other drugs that are a lot more severe.”

Ethredge said the state’s General Assembly “went through battles” in the last legislative session to make the state’s medical marijuana laws “make sense.”

“It’s not fair to our legislators to tell them after it has happened, ‘Will you please fix this?’” he said. “Let’s help them out. Let’s not let this get on the ballot.”

Despite what many celebrities say, marijuana is a dangerous drug, Bledsoe said.

“People don’t believe this because they’ve been listening to such medical and research luminaries as Woody Harrelson, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson,” he said while images of the three outspoken marijuana supporters appeared behind him on a video screen. “Those with the microphones are the ones driving the narrative.”

Certain compounds inside marijuana may provide positive medical benefits, but the proper way to use those chemicals is not by smoking the plant or taking marijuana-laced gummies, Bledsoe said.

“What we need to be doing with marijuana is exactly what we do with every other plant or tree that’s out there,” he said. “We find the compounds that help people, we isolate them, purify them, then dose them appropriately for patients.”

Wright said recreational marijuana use would further thin out an already shallow pool of potential employees here in the Twin Lakes Area.

“It may be attractive coming from Snoop or Willie, but at the end of the day, Snoop doesn’t have to pass a drug test to be hired,” she said. “Snoop doesn’t have to pass random drug tests or operate heavy machinery and make sure he keeps all five fingers at the end of the day.”

American manufacturers spending time addressing recreational marijuana issues lose ground to overseas competitors, Wright said.

“We’re trying to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., but you’ve got to have the people available to do that,” she said. “Eventually all our jobs will go overseas if no one is able to get hired here.”

Spreading the word locally about not signing any of the forthcoming marijuana petitions was the next step, Bledsoe told the audience Tuesday night.

“In your circle of influence, you will shine brighter than the movie star or the athlete or the wealthy person out there,” he said. “Because there are people in your circle of influence that will not listen to anyone but you … You shine your light to the people all around, and you don’t worry about this other stuff. And that’s how we beat this.”

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