LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The home state of the president who didn’t inhale has become an unlikely front in the battle over medical marijuana.
This fall, Arkansas will be the first Southern state to ask voters whether to legalize medical uses for pot, a move that offers supporters a rare chance to make inroads in a region that has resisted easing any restrictions on the drug.
The state’s top elected officials and law enforcement agencies oppose the idea, but legalization groups hope the referendum shows that medical marijuana is no longer solely the domain of East Coast or Western states.
‘‘This is an issue that hasn’t been ready for prime time yet in the South,’’ said Jill Harris, managing director of Drug Policy Action, the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It may be that it’s starting to be, and that’s a good thing.’’
The South and Midwest have remained mostly on the sidelines in the nation’s marijuana-reform movement, which will also put proposals for full-scale legalization before voters this year in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state.
So far, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form.
Massachusetts voters are expected to vote on it in November, and another measure could appear on North Dakota’s ballot.
Past efforts to put medical marijuana on the ballot in Arkansas have faltered, though voters in two cities in the state have approved referendums that encourage police to regard arrests for small amounts of marijuana as a low priority.
Supporters of the current proposal mounted an organized and well-funded campaign that surprised many political observers. Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group advocating for the measure, won ballot access after submitting far more than the required 62,500 signatures.
Medical marijuana has never come before voters in the South partly because of the difficulty of getting such initiatives on the ballot. And conservative legislators throughout the region have not backed the efforts. That’s why the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, spent more than $246,000 on the Arkansas initiative and is expected to spend more.
The national group stepped in after polling showed strong Arkansas support for the measure. Group leaders also cite a symbolic value in passing medical marijuana in the South.
‘‘For some reason, public officials have been way behind public opinion on this issue,’’ said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the agency. ‘‘Politicians are starting to realize that they don’t have to worry about backlash.’’
Backlash over marijuana is nothing new for Arkansas public figures. The state’s most famous political son, Bill Clinton, was ridiculed during his 1992 presidential campaign for admitting that he used marijuana in college but insisting he didn’t inhale.
And Joycelyn Elders, the Arkansas doctor who was named by Clinton to be surgeon general, drew criticism in office for suggesting that drug legalization should be studied. Elders, who is now an outspoken advocate of marijuana legalization, said she believes the Arkansas effort could pass with a strong education campaign.
‘‘If we educate the people in Arkansas, we can do the right thing,’’ Elders said.
Lacking any big-name supporters and facing opposition from some of the state’s top elected officials, Arkansans for Compassionate Care is turning to patients in its campaign.
Kathy Reynolds said she used marijuana in 1992 to help her eat after undergoing breast cancer treatment and bone marrow transplants. Now 57, she says she would like to use it again to dull the pain from a degenerative bone disease. But she’s worried about being arrested.
‘‘I’m afraid to,’’ Reynolds said. ‘‘The risk it would be to use it at this point outweighs the benefit.’’
If approved, the Arkansas proposal would allow patients with certain qualifying conditions to use marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. Qualifying conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease.