Commission OKs timetable to score, award first pot-growing facility licenses by late February

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 659 views 

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission (AMMC) on Friday (Dec. 1) unanimously approved an aggressive two-month schedule to score and approve nearly 100 applications for the state’s first pot-growing cultivation facilities on Feb. 20, and then turnaround a week later and make awards to the initial five winners.

At the same time, the regulatory panel for Arkansas’ fledgling medical marijuana industry adopted a similar plan to repeat the same process weeks later to score the preliminary batch of submissions for more than 200 cannabis retail dispensaries, and then announce winners by late April.

“The meat of tonight, which I expect will get a lot of attention, is trying to make sure we establish a timeline both internal for the Commission and also for public so that they are aware of what that (schedule) is,” Joel DiPippa, an attorney with Department of Finance and Administration’s Office of Revenue Legal Counsel, told the AMMC board before an overflow crowd in the tiny Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) boardroom across the street from the State Capitol.

DiPippa then explained to the five-person commission they would receive the 95 cultivation applications from the DF&A and ABC staffs just ahead of Christmas on Dec. 15. That would then leave them until Feb. 20 to read the lengthy applications and score them based on a 500-point merit scoring system approved by the Legislature at the beginning of this year.

According to DF&A officials, the AMMC’s scoring system breaks down 100 points that applicants can earn into different sections that are focused on operating marijuana facilities in compliance with more than 24 different laws approved by lawmakers in the 2017 legislative session. Other sections included applicant qualifications, financial disclosure and an operations plan.

Once scoring is completed, the five-person panel would then hand out awards based on the best scores for five operators of the marijuana growing facilities at board’s next public meeting on Feb. 27. The board would then conduct the same scoring and award process for 227 dispensary proposals that will be granted one of 32 licenses to operate up to 40 retail locations in eight quadrants of the state.

“After the late January completion of cultivation of cultivation facilities (proposals), then it would be late April until the completion of the dispensaries,” DiPippa said.

Commissioner Dr. J. Carlos Roman and Board Chair Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to lead the regulatory panel nearly a year ago, both wondered aloud if the two-month period would be enough time to go through the nearly 100 cultivations applications first submitted to the panel in late September. DiPippa and the ABC staff’s original proposal was to have the applications for the medical marijuana cultivation facilities completed and scored on Feb. 1, but Roman and Henry-Tillman pushed for a later date at the end of month because of Christmas and New Year time constraints.

“I am just going to be honest, Feb. 1 is just not enough time for me to do my job, particularly during the holidays,” Roman said.

“I also agree,” Henry-Tillman added.

Roman also expressed concerns that details of the more than 320 proposals for medical marijuana cultivation facilities and dispensaries will be available to the media and public shortly after the AMMC board receive their first copies in two weeks.

“Does it make sense? I don’t want any one handing me names of (the applicants),” asked Roman, who has publicly stated he did not vote for the Constitutional amendment in November 2016 that made medical marijuana legal in Arkansas. DiPippa explained to Roman and other board members that the proposals are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, but will be “depersonalized” with financial information, social security numbers and other personal identifying information redacted by the DF&A and ABC staff.

In early May, the Legislature approved the proposed emergency and regular rules submitted by the DFA. Altogether, there were 200 dispensary applications and 100 proposals for the state’s first legalized greeneries to grow marijuana for use in cannabis-related products submitted to the Commission on Sept. 18.

Once delivered to the Commission, all 300-plus bids were time-stamped and applicants were immediately required to submit a payment voucher for the required fee of $15,000. To date, applicants have been able to modify a submitted application prior to the final submission deadline, but those proposals will be subject to the state Freedom of Information Act once that period ends.

“We won’t be releasing any information … until all applications have been ‘depersonalized’ and given to the Commission for scoring,” DF&A spokesman Scott Hardin told Talk Business and Politics in September. “With applications ranging from 500 to 3,000 pages, it is going to take some time for staff to get through each individual application.”

DiPippa said after Friday’s meeting that the FOIA depersonalization process will be completed between the time the AMMC board receives the applications on Dec. 15 and completes the scoring process by Feb. 20. He said proposals delivered to the AMMC board will have the names redacted so each board member can freely score the applications without any perceived bias. However, the media and public will be able to see the names of the applications, although other confidential information will be removed for competitive reasons.

At the previous AMMC board meeting in October, the AMMC revealed that businesses based in Pulaski, Garland, Jefferson, Washington and Sebastian counties submitted more than one-third of the proposals for cultivation greenhouses and retail sites for medical marijuana to the Commission.

According to data provided by the ABC and DFA staff, Pulaski County had 35 applications, including six cultivation facility proposals and 26 dispensary applicants. Garland and Washington counties were next on the list with 25 and 24 applications, respectively. Jefferson County was fourth with 21 applications, but also had the highest number of bids for medical marijuana growing conservatories at 13. Sebastian County has 14 applications, and there were 95 cultivation applications and 227 dispensary bids in eight zones across the state.

The AMMC board also voted to allow five applications for cultivations facilities to move forward into the scoring round due to delays in FBI background checks, which has already pushed back the state’s original schedule following a last-minute rush of late proposals ahead of the Sept. 18 deadline.

The medical marijuana regulatory panel also plans to discuss for the first time how medical marijuana products will be transported and delivered inside state lines. According to state rules, Arkansas medical patients can only purchase the products at a local dispensary with a doctor-approved medical marijuana ID card, courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH).