Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Conner Eldridge speaks in Augusta, Ark., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (Danny Johnston, The Associated Press)

Along with Arkansas Dems, this U.S. Senate hopeful also endorses medical marijuana

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Conner Eldridge endorsed legalizing Arkansas medical marijuana on Monday, a move that comes days after Arkansas Democrats voted to support making the drug available to some patients.

But both Eldridge and state Democrats stopped short of endorsing either one of two competing ballot measures on medical marijuana. Eldridge, a former federal prosecutor facing an uphill battle to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman, and the state party instead called broadly for making the drug available to patients with certain medical conditions.

“I support the development of a responsible medical marijuana program in Arkansas and nationally,” Eldridge said in a statement. “I see no legitimate reason to deny access to marijuana for people like my stepmother, who passed away from a recurrence of breast cancer in 2010.”

Eldridge said he thinks law enforcement resources should go toward “far more serious offenses,” including large scale trafficking of drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.

Delegates to the party’s convention on Saturday approved a platform that also called for a “responsible medical marijuana program” for a variety of conditions including cancer and epilepsy. It’s the first time the party’s platform has included a stance on medical marijuana.

State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said the stance was about “a legal, responsible and medical way of this being handled rather than somebody having to get it through the wrong way.”

The Secretary of State’s office last month verified that a proposed initiated act had enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, and his office is reviewing petitions for another constitutional amendment on the issue. Arkansas voters four years ago narrowly rejected a medical marijuana proposal.

“I think they have finally realized that it’s time to speak out for patients and the fact that they took the time to put it in the platform was wonderful,” said Melissa Fults, who heads the campaign for the legalization measure already approved for the ballot. Fults, a Democrat who is also running for a state House seat, was among the delegates who voted for the platform Saturday.

David Couch, the sponsor of the competing measure, said he also believed the endorsement would help make the case to voters.

“Anytime a well-respected organization…acknowledges the importance of marijuana as a medicine, it validates it to the electorate,” Couch said.

The state Republican Party’s platform, adopted earlier this month, opposes the decriminalization of marijuana. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who headed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, opposes the medical marijuana proposals and last week said he believed legalizing the drug would be a drain on state resources.

Chris Caldwell, Boozman’s campaign manager, said the Republican senator has a long history of voting against legalizing marijuana and said he opposes the ballot measures.

“These initiatives are written so broadly that anyone with an ailment can get a prescription,” Caldwell said in an email.

A coalition of groups that includes the state Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau and the conservative Family Council Action Committee last week filed a lawsuit to block Fults’ proposal.

State Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, a spokesman for the group, said he doesn’t fault the Democratic Party for its stance but said it shouldn’t be viewed as an endorsement of either ballot measure.

“The legislation that’s on the ballot is not responsible and that’s where the breakdown occurs,” Bledsoe said.


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter @ademillo