The state Medical Marijuana Commission agreed after long debate on Tuesday (Oct. 16) to schedule a public meeting at the end of this month so those concerned about Arkansas’ delayed entry into the legalized cannabis industry can air their grievances.
“We want to be transparent. It’s the right thing to do,” MMC Chair Ronda Henry-Tillman told a rowdy crowd after the five-person regulatory panel spent more than an hour discussing possible new legal challenges that could further delay the process to jumpstart the state’s medical marijuana industry.
That long debate followed an earlier presentation by Thomas Aldridge of Boston-based Public Consulting Group (PCG) on the East Coast healthcare consulting group’s plans to move forward with the scoring of nearly 200 pending medical marijuana dispensary applications.
In August, the medical marijuana regulatory panel received two proposals from PCG and ICF Incorporated at $99,472.00 and $361,514.00, respectively, to review and score the tabled applications that have been on hold for several months due to legal challenges and the commission’s decision to outsource the dispensary scoring process.
A month ago, the AMMC board officially hired PCG to take up the task to score the 198 dispensary applications and then select up to 32 startup companies to kickstart the fledgling industry by early 2019. Although PCG has never done such work, Aldridge assured the board that the Boston healthcare group was fully capable of reviewing and then returning the applications back to the commission within 30 days.
“Some of the projects we’ve done position us very well for this,” Aldridge said. “The provider groups that we work with somewhat resemble some of the folks that we have coming on board in the sense that they are always in need of some sort of screening and enrollment processes in order to determine they are compliant with certain standards.”
In describing the independent process of reviewing and scoring the dispensary applications, Aldridge told state regulators that PCG has assembled a team of five industry experts from the government, cannabis, pharmaceutical, legal and healthcare professions to score the application’s under AMMC’s rules.
Those reviewers, which will be supported by a PCG oversight team, have already been vetted to insure they were not Arkansas residents and had no conflict of interests with any of the applicants. Aldridge, who will manage the team, added that the healthcare group’s experience in screening and enrolling Medicaid and Affordable Care Act applicants was great preparation for the AMMC work.
TILLMAN: NO PHYSICIAN, NO GO
In quizzing Aldridge about the scoring process, Tillman told the PCG executive that she was very uncomfortable with having a nurse among the five-person review group instead of a physician. She later emphasized that without adding a doctor to the scoring team, she could not fully support PCG’s review.
“Looking at the qualifying (medical) conditions … to be eligible for use of medical marijuana, you are talking about hepatitis, chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disorders, cancer, glaucoma and HIV/AIDs, I just don’t understand not having a physician on the team,” said Tillman, a local surgeon and chief of breast oncology at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Medicine, Department of Surgery.
After hearing out Tillman’s concerns, Aldridge told the AMMC chair that the PCG team would report back to the regulatory panel to look at a workable solution before moving forward. Later, AMMC Commissioner Travis Story also asked the question everyone wanted to know: When will the scoring be completed and the applications returned to the board to name the 32 dispensary locations across eight quadrants of the state?
“By mid-November, we should have some answers back to you,” Aldridge said before exiting the meeting.
Immediately after his presentation, the AMMC board began a long discussion and debate concerning the regulatory panel’s more controversial process to score and award licenses for the highly-sought-after medical cultivation center licenses awarded to five Arkansas-based companies in late February.
Those licenses, which were primarily awarded to companies in the Arkansas Delta, were not ratified by the commission until late July due to legal challenges that went all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court. After deciding to delay a change in ownership for Delta Medical Cannabis Company and allowing Bold Team LLC of Little Rock to make minor changes in the location of its greenhouse in Woodruff County, the board brought up a 16-page letter from Abraham Carpenter of Carpenter Farms Medical Group (CFMG) in Grady.
At the AMMC board meeting earlier this summer, the Grady-based marijuana startup filed a protest after it landed just outside the top candidates whose scores had been ratified. However, the sticking point with several commissioners was that Arkansas Beverage Control (ABC) Board staff had originally approved all the applications in a pool of 85 applications that were reviewed and scored by the commissioners in late 2017 and early 2018.
However, at the behest of the ABC legal counsel in late July, the AMMC board voted to disqualify CFMG’s planned greenery and 12 other applications after finding they had incomplete ownership data or other missing information. At Tuesday’s meeting, the letter from CFMG Attorney Matt Simmons asked medical marijuana regulators to either reject the ABC’s staff disqualification of the company’s application or issue the cannabis startup a formal letter of denial so Carpenter could file a lawsuit in lower court to overturn the decision.
“This situation is simple to boil down. An overzealous agency staff member unilaterally, improperly and unfairly seized on an obvious transcription error in an org chart on one of the 700-plus pages of a cultivation application to disqualify the highest scoring, 100% minority-owned application for an Arkansas marijuana cultivation license. This application scored sixth highest out of all applications received,” wrote Simmons.
“The resulting injustice is also simple to correct. To that end, we respectfully request the AMMC reconsider its vote to follow a staffer’s recommendation that CFMG’s application for a medical marijuana cultivation license be disqualified and its core disregarded over an obvious scrivener’s error,” Simmons concluded.
Following a long discussion between the AMMC and its legal counsel concerning Carpenter’s letter, state Democratic Reps. Reginald Murdock of Forrest City and Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff interrupted the meeting by requesting to publicly speak to the commissioners concerning CFMG’s application.
“I just have never been in an environment where there is a public commission or board and the public is dissuaded from speaking or offering public comment,” Flowers protested.
After several more minutes of discussions and urging from several audience members to open the meeting up to the public, the AMMC board brought the two-hour plus assembly to an end by halting any further actions. The board then quickly moved to schedule a public forum on Oct. 25 or 26 to hear complaints concerning the state’s medical marijuana rules.
After Arkansas voters approved a referendum to legalize marijuana for medical use in the November 2016 election, the AMMC first began accepting bids on June 30, 2017 for up to five marijuana growing facilities and another 32 dispensary applicants. If PCG completes the scoring of the dispensary applications by Thanksgiving, medical marijuana experts across the state predict that cannabis products could be on the shelf in Arkansas by the spring of 2019.