As those who know me have long known, and as most others have guessed from my nom de blog, I am a denizen of the great state of Arkansas, the butt of our national jokes and general, all-purpose whipping boy. Trust me, a lot of that is deserved – look at our state rankings in education, health care, income, and any number of other measures, and it quickly becomes obvious that we don’t have our shit together.
But one thing has long irked me, and that’s the tendency of bloggers and others in the more-liberal-than-thou coastal areas to tar our state with the same reactionary brush they apply (correctly) to Texas, Mississippi, and other god-forsaken places. While it’s true that Arkansas shares some regrettable traits with these places, including racism, general ignorance, and hyper-fundamentalist religiosity, it has a populist streak not found in those areas. Note that I said “populist”, not “progressive.” It’s merely coincidental that some of the things that happen here politically look like the latter to outsiders; they without exception are the result of the former.
Thanks to that widespread misunderstanding, for the past month national publications have ballyhooed Arkansas’ status as “the first Southern state” to put medical marijuana to the vote. It’s true; the Compassionate Care Act will appear on our Nov. 6 ballot. But the first mistake in this media meme is the assumption that Arkansas is part of a monolithic South, which it isn’t and never has been; error the second is in assuming that the development in any way indicates that progressivism is gaining purchase in Arkansas or in other areas of the old Confederacy.
The fact is, the initiative almost didn’t make it to the ballot as a result of several rejections of the ballot title language by the state’s Attorney General, an initial insufficient number of valid voter signatures on petitions, and a late Supreme Court challenge after the other hurdles had been cleared. Along the way, state lawmakers weighed in with the opinion that the measure was proof of the need to “reform” the initiative process – a concern that none of them voiced in regard to a casino amendment put forward by a private individual which, had it made it to the ballot and passed, would have allowed said individual to write into the state constitution a monopoly for herself on all casinos in the state, as well as set her own preferred tax rate, free from the interference of meddling officials actually elected by the people of the state. It’s good to know our elected representatives have their priorities straight.
The court challenge came, as might have been predicted, from one of several religious political groups operating in Arkansas who see their mission as making sure that the rest of us don’t do anything that they believe might make God mad; apparently their belief is that God gets pissed when people with debilitating illnesses experience less pain and discomfort. God gave them that illness – they should welcome it! It is His divine plan that the only relief should come from billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies.
The court challenge has actually been the most entertaining part of the whole story so far. Jerry Cox, head of the Family Council and someone I know from personal experience to be a less-than-honest operator, announced his group’s intent to challenge the initiative, under the pretext that the ballot title didn’t explain to voters all the problems that states which have passed medical marijuana laws have experienced as a result. I, who am not an attorney, thought “wow, that’s some weak sauce; that can’t be what he’s planning on arguing to the court, because they don’t care about that – they only care about whether or not the ballot title accurately describes what the law will do.” I assumed there was some other argument with actual legal grounding that would be made; as it happens, I was wrong. In a very unusual move, the Court announced that they didn’t want to hear oral arguments from either side; I interpreted that as being an indication that either they didn’t intend to give Jerry Cox a soapbox or they intended to bend intepretation of the law to the breaking point in order to toss the initiative from the ballot. As it turns out, it was the former reason – the court handed down their ruling on Thursday and noted that the ballot title language was “free of partisan coloring,” which was exactly what Cox and the Family Council were arguing was the reason it should be rejected – because it didn’t make their argument for them in the ballot title wording.
So now, it’s on to the election. My prediction? I think it’s going to pass. The only polling done on the issue was back in May or June; at that time, 47% indicated support vs. 46% who were against. As I joked to my sister, half the people in the state have a family member or friend who’s farming in the national forest, which in and of itself should be enough to put it over the top. But in all seriousness, while that may be a small factor, the bigger reason is that people here simply don’t like being told what to do by outsiders. The Attorney General’s insistence that the ballot title language include a reminder that marijuana is still illegal under federal law will, if anything, persuade some voters to vote in favor of the initiative. The old bootlegger vs. federal revenooers attitude is still alive and thriving in large pockets of the state. That attitude is a double-edged sword, to be sure: it’s the same one that gave rise to the Central High crisis of 1957. But it continues to exert an influence that makes the state politically schizophrenic and impossible to pin down.
The other reason I think this will pass is purely anecdotal – over the past several months, in general conversation with several people who I would not expect to be supportive of the initiative, I’ve been surprised time and again when they not only bring up the issue but volunteer that they’re planning on voting in favor of it. These are mostly people over the age of 50, some of whom are regular church-going folks, which leads me to believe that if the undercurrent of support is that strong in this group, it’s going to pass.
Which means that after November, this will be a state in which same-sex marriage is prohibited by the state constitution, while medical marijiuana is legal – putting us a mere couple of years behind California, politically-culturally-speaking. This will surprise no one who knows anything at all about the state – we sent the first woman to the US Senate way back in the 1930′s, then several decades later produced the fine specimen of a state legislator who coined the term “barefoot and pregnant.” Obama is currently polling at about 35% here, while at the same time we have the only governor in the region – a Democrat re-elected in the Teabagger high-water-mark year of 2010 by a landslide - who has embraced the Medicaid expansion under his health care plan.
So the next time you’re tempted to lump us in with the lunatics in Texas, Mississippi, or Oklahoma, just….don’t. We’re an island of sanity in comparison to the reactionary ignoramuses who surround us. That’s a frightening thought, but we do get things right sometimes, though it’s for different reasons than you might expect.