Voters say yes to medical marijuana in Arkansas

Posted at 9:28 AM, Nov 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-27 09:28:15-05

Voters in Arkansas recently said yes to a measure to legalize medical marijuana.

The approval brings relief to some who rely on marijuana to treat conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But some opponents worry legalization may do more harm than good.

Navy veteran Blake Ruckle suffers from PTSD.

He says the memories of his 2011 missions to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia began haunting him two years ago, "My crew were the ones who brought the bodies off the helicopters. I was struggling with alcoholism very badly and I started to suffer from a lot of depression from a lot of the things that I'd seen and was having night terrors, trouble sleeping."

He kept his struggles, even contemplation of suicide, a secret until after he was honorably discharged in 2014.

Then he read stories online about how some veterans were finding relief through smoking marijuana.

So Ruckle started buying and smoking marijuana illegally. And he says it helped a lot.

But this self-described Christian in Fayetteville, Arkansas now faced a new battle - a moral one.

Ruckle says, "I felt like a criminal and felt that I was displeasing to my faith and to my God. The one thing that I found that helped me was under such scrutiny and was illegal."

Illegal under state law, until now. This month, voters in Arkansas chose to amend the state's constitution by a vote of 53-percent to 47-percent.

Making Arkansas the first state in the bible belt to legalize medical marijuana.

According to Pew Research, seven out of ten Arkansans call themselves 'highly religious.'

To win them over, Little Rock attorney David Couch, who's group sponsored the ballot initiative, took his case to church congregations.

"People would come up to you and whisper in your ear, 'hey, I'm for you. My grandma has cancer and we buy her marijuana - or my son has PTSD and we buy him marijuana. We had all these stories," said Couch.

Despite the vote, Arkansas is still a conservative state - with its republican governor, republican-controlled state legislature, every member of its congressional delegation: republican.

Nearly half of the state's 75 counties are dry. Which means soon, people in those counties will be able to legally buy and smoke medical marijuana, although they won't be able to buy a six-pack of beer."

In 2012, a similar measure was narrowly defeated, in part, by an ad from the Christian Conservative Family Council Action Committee, which some criticized for reinforcing racial stereotypes.

This time around, the group's ads featured the state's Surgeon General making the case against the amendment.

Ken Yang of the Family Council Action Committee says, "Smoking something is not medicine."

Yang does not expect Arkansas will be the bible belt bellwether for medical marijuana.

Yang says, "I think there will be a couple more southern states that may come along and by the time we get to the rest of the south, I think people will start saying, 'this is a bad thing. This has been hard to implement in many states. This is bad for the kids. There's more wrecks, there's more E-R visits."

Attorney David Couch says, "It really does provide relief and benefit to people who need it. You know, if you look at it from a compassionate side, from the Christian side - it's the right thing to do."

Yang counters, "The Christian viewpoint, the moral viewpoint is to make sure that our neighbors, our communities aren't bringing harm upon themselves and that's where we're coming from. We want to help people in the correct fashion, the right form."

Blake Ruckle says smoking marijuana doesn't make him forget the horror he's seen, instead it helps him talk about it. Now he wants to help others.

"I didn't just fight for the state of California. I didn't just fight for the state of Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Florida or any of these states that have some sort of legalization effort. I fought for all 50 states and so did every one of my brothers and sisters and if there's a medicine out there that can help them through their night demons... we are obligated to give this to these people," Ruckle says.