An Arkansas Senate committee agreed Wednesday to let Arkansans use medical marijuana, but not to let them smoke it or obtain it from others in edible form, while a House committee voted to enact 4% privilege taxes on cultivators and distributors.
The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee declined to endorse Senate Bill 238 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which would have required the state to delay implementation of medical marijuana until the drug is legal in the United States. The measure died for lack of a motion.
But the committee did vote for Senate Bill 357 by Rapert, which would make it illegal for Arkansans to smoke marijuana, and for Senate Bill 333 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, which would make it illegal for anyone to combine marijuana with food and drink except qualifying patients and designated caregivers.
Bills that alter the Medical Marijuana Amendment, approved by voters in November, require a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate.
In arguing for Senate Bill 238, Rapert said state legislators swear to uphold both the United States and Arkansas’ Constitutions, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which supersedes state law.
He said Arkansas voters had previously approved state amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman and limiting abortions. When both were overturned by federal court decisions, the state abided by those dictates.
“I don’t see the state of Arkansas going down and boarding up the doors of the abortion clinic in Arkansas,” he said.
After the bill died for a lack of motion, Rapert was more successful with Senate Bill 357, which prohibits marijuana from being smoked anywhere. Rapert said many Arkansans who voted for the amendment thought they were voting for a pharmaceutical like the drug Marinol.
“If it’s going to be medicine, then by all means make it medicine. But let’s just don’ t wrap up snake oil in a joint and smoke it,” he said.
Rapert argued that the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce cigarette smoking, which, unlike the smoke from a marijuana cigarette, doesn’t intoxicate those nearby.
Scott Pace with the Arkansas Pharmacists Association spoke in support of the bill, as did Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and a former surgeon general under Gov. Mike Beebe.
Melissa Fults, a longtime medical marijuana advocate and head of the Drug Policy Education Group, said for some people, smoking marijuana is the best way to use it.
“I understand people’s concern about smoking, but if you have a cancer patient who is throwing their guts up and is so sick and needs immediate relief, smoking it or inhaling it is the only option. Edibles and oils can take up to an hour-and-a-half to work,” she said.
Hours after prohibiting smoking marijuana, the committee returned to pass Senate Bill 333, which prohibits the mixing of marijuana with food and drink by anyone other than qualifying patients and caregivers.
Dr. Greg Bledsoe, the state’s surgeon general, told the committee that marijuana edibles concerned him more than smoking marijuana because a person can progressively ingest dangerous levels of the drug before it begins to take effect. Also, he said edibles are often packaged like candy.
Fults opposed the bill, saying an alternative, using marijuana-based oil, can take a long time to prepare.
Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, who has sponsored much of the marijuana-related legislation this session, said the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division can set rules to address concerns over packaging and then make changes quickly, whereas bad legislation remains in force until the next legislative session.
As with the ban on smoking, he said legislators should be careful not to encourage a marijuana black market where people can buy products on the street that better suit their needs. He warned that if the Legislature limits medical marijuana too much, voters will return with a petition legalizing the drug entirely.
The House Rules Committee, meanwhile, approved House Bill 1580 by Rep. House, which would create a 4% tax on cultivators and distributors.
Joel DiPippa, an attorney with the Department of Finance and Administration’s Office of Revenue Legal Counsel, said the department had estimated the costs of administering medical marijuana at between $5 and $6 million per year, but existing sales taxes would only produce $2.5 million.
Fults said medical marijuana is medicine and shouldn’t be taxed, and said that adding to the cost would result in more patients turning to the black market. She said there are other ways for the state to raise money, including by adding more qualifying medical conditions.
The House Rules Committee also passed House Bill 1460 by Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, which says a cause of action could not be established against employers who create substance abuse or drug-free workplace policies and drug testing programs. The bill also would allow them to act when they believe an employee has used marijuana or been under the influence during work hours, and to exclude an employee who is a medical marijuana patient from safety sensitive positions. Employers would be protected if they reassign or terminate employees on place them on leave. Fults said the bill needs more protections for employees.
Other medical marijuana bills passed by the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee included:
– House Bill 1556 by Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, which would prohibit patients from qualifying for medical marijuana through telemedicine.
– House Bill 1402 by Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, which would allow the state to reclassify marijuana-derived substances if the federal government does so. The federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning it has no medicinal benefit.
– House Bill 1451 by Rep. Trevor Drown, R-Dover, which would prohibit members of the Arkansas National Guard from qualifying as patients or caregivers, and it would also prohibit marijuana at a National Guard facility. Members of the National Guard already are prohibited from using marijuana by the federal government and the military. Fults said guardsmen should not be prohibited from being caregivers.
– House Bill 1519 by Rep. House, which would place the Medical Marijuana Commission under the Department of Finance and Administration for funding and administrative purposes.
– House Bill 1507 by Rep. House, which would allow the Medical Marijuana Commission, the Department of Health, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to collect fines for rules violations.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee approved two other medical marijuana bills:
– House Bill 1584 by Rep. House, which would allow the Medical Marijuana Commission to issue a temporary license if the license holder at a dispensary or cultivation facility ceases to be in control of the facility.
– House Bill 1436 by Rep. House, which would set rules for licenses.