Arkansas (parts of it) may be joining 20th century

On the square in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Yes, I know it’s the 21st century, but here in Arkansas we run about 100 years behind the times in many ways.

But that could be changing. Voters in two counties of Northwest Arkansas will be voting in November to legalize liquor sales. Currently, Arkansas has a mix of dry and wet counties. Also on the November ballot is a proposal to make medical marijuana legal in Arkansas.

Seventeen states now have medical marijuana in some form, but none of them are in the South. It appears Arkansas will be the first southern state to have the issue put before the voters.

Benton County, in the northwest corner of the state, is the fastest growing county in the state, booming from being the corporate headquarters of Walmart. If you’ve never heard of Bentonville, Arkansas, it’s just a matter of time until you do.

When Walmart was founded in 1962, the county seat was a quiet little burg of 3,500 people. Fifty years later, with the explosive growth of Walmart, it has ten times as many people and the four counties in the northwest corner of Arkansas are now ranked as the 109th most populous area in the country with a population or more than 400,000.

Interestingly, two of the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the petition effort to get the booze question on the November ballot. It’s hard to believe Sam would approve. He never allowed the sale of alcohol in any Walmart stores during his life, and it’s only been within the past couple of years that Walmart finally started selling wine and beer.

Benton County borders Missouri to the north. Just over the state line, there are huge liquor stores and a constant parade of Arkies buying liquor and heading back to Arkansas. Though it is illegal to do this, there is no law enforcement effort to stop the flow of alcohol into Arkansas. And the losses in tax dollars to Arkansas are in the millions.

Legal booze in the boonies?

Perhaps even more indicative of the changing times in Arkansas is the fact that in Madison County, which lies southeast of Benton County, the liquor question will also be put to voters in November.

What makes this significant is that Madison County is almost the direct opposite of Benton County. Madison County is intensely rural. The county seat of Huntsville, the largest town in the county, had a population of just over 2,000 in 2010. Imagine, if you can, an entire county with not one stoplight. That’s Madison County.

A vote to toke?

The effort to get medical marijuana put to a vote statewide has been a struggle for advocates of the measure. They tried to get it on the ballot four years ago, but failed to get the more than 60,000 signatures needed from registered voters. This time, the measure was certified for election, but now an opposition group is challenging the proposal in court and trying to get it off the ballot.

But it’s doubtful the opposition group, which claims to represent “Arkansas values,” will be able to stop the medical marijuana vote. Voters will probably vote it down this November, but just getting it on the ballot is an eyebrow-raiser.

Of course, the real truth is that booze and pot are readily available everywhere in Arkansas, one way or another. But making it legal to do what people are doing in huge numbers illegally will at least get some power out of the hands of people who are still living the 19th century.


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