11/05/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is Medical Marijuana Finally Coming to the South?

"I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale and I didn't try it again" - Bill Clinton, March 29, 1992

It was twenty years ago when a younger Bill Clinton made that comical comment. He was a presidential candidate from Arkansas at the time, and ironically enough, it wasn't in his home county of Hempstead where he admittedly took the virgin tokes. Rather, it was in England while studying abroad at Oxford University. Since then, both Bill Clinton and his native state have come a long way--the former became a two-term president, and the latter is now poised to become the first state in the South to successfully pass a medical marijuana ballot initiative.

Officially known as the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act (or Issue 5), the measure would allow citizens who've been issued cards by the state's health department to buy and possess marijuana for medical purposes. Qualifying patients could either grow up to six cannabis plants themselves or purchase marijuana at state approved dispensaries. Recent polls show a tossup when it comes to support over the measure, with prohibitionists trailing cannabis reformers by just a slight margin, meaning the current undecided voters will be the decision makers come November 6th.

As a Southerner and as a federal-drug-enforcement-agent-turned-medical-marijuana-legalization-advocate, I am grateful to Arkansans for Compassionate Care for getting this initiative on the ballot, especially considering the amount of hoops they had to jump through to make it happen. Unfortunately, this region is often one of the last places to embrace change, but all it takes is one state to get the ball rolling and motivate the rest of the region.

There are obviously multiple reasons for supporting marijuana reform, but none are more important than the ones that save lives. In the case of veteran Paul Coody, a paraplegic from Arkansas who uses marijuana to relieve his pain, cannabis is a much safer and more effective alternative than addictive opiate pharmaceuticals. Coody is just one of many Arkansas patients living with anxiety each day for his pursuit of a healthier and happier lifestyle. As he states, "We would just like to not live in fear of being put in prison, losing our job, being denied benefits, just because we are trying to reach the highest quality of life with our various medical conditions."

When it comes to the case of Kathy Michaud, an Arkansas resident who was diagnosed with Hepatitis C more than twenty years ago, marijuana gave her body the nutrition it needed while undergoing treatment. It was the only medicine that enabled her to eat, and according to her husband, "If I had to go through it again, I would do it. I would buy marijuana off the street until it's legal to keep my wife alive. I love her that much."

Having worked on the Mexican border as a special agent with Homeland Security, I know firsthand that marijuana reform is about saving lives. The drug war has resulted in more than 60,000 prohibition-related deaths in the past 6 years, and the violence is spilling over into the United States more each day. To some, Southern states like Arkansas might seem isolated from the violence, but unfortunately that's not the case: the Justice Department now reports that Mexican cartels are active in over 1,000 U.S. cities.

The bottom line is that people like Paul Coody and Kathy Michaud shouldn't have to endanger themselves by resorting to the black market for their medication. Rather than having their money diverted and funneled back to ruthless criminal organizations, it should instead be invested in a beneficial and sustainable legal medical marijuana market here in the United States. This is especially the case for an agricultural state like Arkansas that could use an economic boost more than ever.

Election Day is just around the corner, and whether medical marijuana becomes a reality or not in Arkansas, the state and the rest of the South have already won, because an important precedent has been established for the future. Still, hopefully "The Natural State" will live up to its name on November 6th, and Arkansas will finally have a safe, natural option for patients in need.