In setting up the state’s system for medical marijuana, legislators are grappling with “about 135 issues, and that’s a real number” that must be clarified or modified through legislation, according to Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock.
House said he is serving as a point man in the House of Representatives on the issue at the request of Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia. He said Gillam made the request two months before the election.
Voters in November approved an amendment allowing certain patients to use medically prescribed marijuana, with the Department of Health, Department of Finance and Administration’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, and the newly created Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission given 120 days from the amendment’s passage to create rules. The commission is tasked with granting licenses to four to eight cultivation facilities and 20 to 40 dispensaries.
The Legislature can amend the amendment with a two-thirds vote, and House has already prefiled two bills on the subject. One, House Bill 1026, would extend the timeline for regulations from 120 days after the election to 180 days. The bill also would change the earliest day for the commission to begin accepting applications for dispensary and cultivation licenses from June 1 to July 1, 2017.
House said the extra time is needed for those state agencies and the commission to comply with the Arkansas Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public comment. At 120 days, regulations would have to be finalized by March 9, which means rules would have to be drafted by late January.
House said the bill has received support from all corners. Even David Couch, sponsor of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, supports it, House said.
House said “extensive” legislation is being drafted to deal with how medical marijuana is treated on job sites. Under the amendment, employees cannot be discriminated against or penalized by employers for being a medical marijuana patient. However, patients are not allowed to perform tasks under the influence of marijuana that would “constitute negligence or professional malpractice.” The amendment does not allow patients to operate motor vehicles while under the influence, does not require employers to accommodate the use of marijuana at work, and does not allow marijuana to be used in a public place.
House said legislators are working to clarify what an employer can do using rules that would mirror those for other drugs causing impairments.
“It is complicated, but worker safety is paramount,” he said.
The amendment excludes those convicted of a felony involving violence from receiving a cultivation or dispensary license. House Bill 1049 by House would define “felony of violence” as those involving physical, emotional, psychological or economic damage or injury, or threats of those. House said some definition is needed in order for the Medical Marijuana Commission to know who should be disqualified.
The bill also would add felonies of “moral turpitude, gross immortality, or dishonesty” as disqualifiers. House, an attorney, said “moral turpitude” is a common legal term recognized by lawyers. He said he considered listing every offense that would serve as a disqualifier, but that proved impractical, and also considered banning all felons, but that would violate the spirit of the amendment.
Under the amendment, a doctor must explain medical marijuana’s potential risks and benefits to the patient or the person with legal custody of the patient.
That’s a judgment physicians aren’t in a position to make, House said, because there are no widely accepted standards to help them make that determination. He said medical marijuana is “essentially a homeopathic remedy” that has not undergone the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process, so a bill would amend the amendment removing that responsibility.
“They’re going to have that discussion with their patients,” he said. “This might be able to help you. This might not. Whatever that discussion may be should be between the doctor and their patient.”
The Medical Marijuana Commission, which will meet for the second time Dec. 20, will be busy in the coming months. In its first meeting, it voted itself a stipend of $85 a day, as is allowed under the amendment. House said he’s drafting an appropriations bill that would pay the five commission members about $30,000 a year, which is similar to the salary of the State Claims Commission.
“For the next six months, those commission members are going to be overwhelmed, and we need to kind of defer some of their expenses,” he said. “Eighty-five dollars a day is an insult.”
Among the other issues to be addressed is the need to ensure Arkansas State Police can perform a National Crime Information Center background check on dispensers and cultivators. Under the terms of the amendment, it appears they can only perform state checks, he said.
House said that, in passing upcoming legislation, legislators will attempt to let the Medical Marijuana Commission and other state agencies determine policies “without legislation micromanagement.” He voted against the amendment, publicly stated his position and donated money to the opposition. He said his background as a retired colonel in the National Guard gave him experience in carrying out assignments with which he doesn’t necessarily agree.
“I guess our overall objective is to try to stay as true to the amendment as absolutely possible. That’s what the people want. That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.