Medical Marijuana panel OK’s plan to hire consultants, pending legislative approval

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 446 views 

The state Medical Marijuana Commission on Thursday (July 12) engaged in a spirited and colorful discussion for nearly an hour on a timeline and plan for the hiring of a consultant to assist the five-person regulatory panel with reviewing and handing out of 32 licenses for up to 40 medical pot retail locations across the state.

In the end, after debate often veered off course several times during the meeting, the Commission agreed to prepare a bid proposal to hire a consultant to score more than 200 waiting applications for medical marijuana dispensaries – pending legislative approval.

The highlight of the meeting was several side arguments and off-topic comments by AMMC Commissioner Dr. J. Carlos Roman, who became increasingly animated when the board began a discussion on how state procurement officials could prepare a bid proposal to vet possible conflicts of interest and outside influence in selecting medical pot locations in eight quadrants of the Natural State.

“One of the concerns I have when you start talking about conflicts and bias being conscious or subconscious, it doesn’t really matter, is that one of the strengths that we did here was that there was five of us grading it,” Roman said of the five cultivation winners also confirmed by the AMMC board at Thursday’s meeting.

Although he did not specifically cite the lawsuit brought against the AMMC board by Little Rock-based Naturalis Health that was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court on July 10, Roman bristled at any suggestion that any of the board members had any outside influence in awarding the state’s first medical marijuana licenses to five cultivators at a standing-room only meeting in late February.

“Even if – let’s say you worked for Vladimir Putin right – and he said, ‘Ok, you either get me a (medical marijuana) license or I am going to blow up plutonium in your face or you give me a license and I give you a bunch of rubles’ – the reality is that you didn’t have the ability to make that happen because you are only 20% of the vote.

“Simple mathematics say 20% would never get you a majority. So, there was a natural mathematical check and the fact that all five of us graded these,” Roman continued. “So, it didn’t matter if you (favored) your grandmother’s application, it washed out with the math.”

In a controversial decision on March 14, Judge Wendell Griffen first declared the AMMC’s process of scoring and awarding Arkansas’ first licenses to five pot cultivators as “null and void,” citing the constitutional amendment approved by voters. However, the state high court’s recent decision put the five-person regulatory panel back in charge of the process again, leaving the commission possibly open to a volley of new complaints and legal threats from runner-up applicants.

Griffen’s order had postponed AMMC meetings for more than four months and had prevented the part-time regulatory board from moving ahead to ratify the winners of the five cultivation licenses for pot greenhouses, or handing out new permits for retail locations to sell marijuana products to thousands of Arkansas patients with state-approved medical ID cards.

But the part of Griffen’s ruling that obviously rankled the Little Rock physician and others on the AMMC board were allegations in the order that AMMC’s decision-making process was compromised because “pecuniary relationships between Roman and Commissioner Travis Story with Dr. Scott Schlesinger and Jay and Mary Trulove of Osage Creek Cultivation created the appearance of bias in violation of due process of law.”

Osage Creek was one of the five companies to receive one of the highly-sought after cultivation licenses. The other winners included Natural State Medicinals Cultivation, Bold Team LLC, Natural State Wellness Enterprises, and Delta Medical Cannabis Company Inc.

Describing all the complaints and legal challenges before the Commission as “fantastical lawsuits,” a frustrated Roman said publicly that not one commissioner determined who received a license. Not speaking to anyone in particular, he compared the commission’s process of reviewing more than 90 applicants through a 500-point merit scoring system approved by the state legislature in May 2017 to picking a lottery winner or gambling.

“It’s like people didn’t understand the difference between an investment and a gamble. There were (95) applications, and only five of them were going to be (winners),” said Roman. “You have a 6% chance. You have better odds (to) take your $100,000 fee, go down to Oaklawn Park, run a roulette wheel and put it on red—and you just increased your chances of making money.”

Earlier in the meeting, ABC Director Mary Casteel and Mary Williams, a staff attorney with the Department of Finance and Administration’s procurement office, provided the commission with a list of options on how to prepare a bid, specify for the scope of work, and then hire an outside consultant as quickly as possible to get the state’s stalled medical marijuana industry back on track.

After considerable discussion and questions from the Commission, Williams could not definitively provide the regulatory panel with a timetable or potential costs to hire an outside consultant to score the 203 dispensary applications. When asked if she knew of any national consultant firms with expertise in medical marijuana scoring, Williams told board members she was unaware of any states that have gone through a similar process.

Williams also told the commissioners that state procurement officers could prepare a bid proposal piggybacked with a cooperative contract arrangement with another state later this month if a legislative panel decides to hold a special meeting next week and approve the proposal to hire a consultant. After that, it would take up to 30-60 days to receive proposals from prospective bidders and then hire a consultant under the state’s “lowest-bidder” rules, she said.

“But even at the best, it would take 30 to 60 days” to hire a consultant, said AMMC Chair Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman.

Added Commissioner Travis Story: “So best case scenario, we are into November to December ‘timeframe-ish,’ assuming everything goes right and we find the right people and everything.”

Shortly afterward, on the advice of ABC counsel, the board unanimously approved a tightly-worded measure for the commission to retain consulting services. The board also approved a proposal to amend existing rules concerning the award of additional or replacement licenses, if needed in the future.

On Friday, the ABC staff will ask lawmakers to put the consultant proposal before a subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council next week. If approved by lawmakers on the joint interim committee, the ABC and DFA staff will then promulgate new rules that give the medical pot regulators the leeway to hire a consultant to handle the review and scoring process without losing final authority to oversee the process.

Arkansas voters approved the constitutional amendment to legalize medicinal marijuana in November 2016.