Cultivators say medical marijuana will be available in Arkansas by late spring 2019

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 1,180 views 

More than two years after Arkansas voters approved medical marijuana in November 2016, the product could finally be available next year.

At a Wednesday (Nov. 28) meeting of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission (AMMC), four of the five cultivators selected by state regulators to grow Arkansas’ first legalized marijuana crop said they hope to have their greenhouses up and running and cannabis products on the shelf sometime between April and August of next year.

The fifth cultivator, however — Delta Medical Cannabis Company of Jonesboro — will have to wait for an imminent opinion from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on whether the planned location of its greenhouse near Arkansas State University-Newport meets the requirements of the AMMC’s voluminous rules.

Delta Medical, along with Natural State Medicinals Cultivation, Bold Team LLC, Natural State Wellness Enterprises and Osage Creek Cultivation, each gave brief updates Wednesday on the progress of their cultivation facilities during a 90-minute meeting in Little Rock.

Beginning with Osage Creek, which is planning to build a greenhouse in Carroll County near Berryville, representatives from each cultivation facility gave AMMC board members and an antsy overflow audience the first real glimpse on when thousands of medical patients in Arkansas can expect to have cannabis products available to treat an assortment of qualifying medical conditions.

Matt Trulove, an Osage Creek partner, told the board his Northwest Arkansas startup firm is constructing a pre-engineered metal building that is expected to complete by March 1. Once the construction phase is completed, Osage Creek will immediately put seeds in the ground and begin growing marijuana that should be available by early summer, he said.

“We are anticipating a 90-day cycle from the approval process before medicine will be available from when we are completed, so that will be a June 1 delivery date,” Trulove said, adding that product availability would also depend on when the medical marijuana dispensary locations will be up and running.

In August, the AMMC board hired Boston-based Public Consulting Group to review and score 198 tabled dispensary applications within the commission’s tight 60- to 90-day window. Board members of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) division of the state department of finance and administration said they expect the consulting firm to hand the applications back to the AMMC board in mid-December, opening the door for the regulators to award up to 32 licenses for dispensary retailers before year’s end.

Danny Brown, CEO of North Little Rock-based Bold Team, offered one of the most aggressive timelines for having his firm’s cultivation facility near Cotton Plant in Woodruff County up and running. Brown told the AMMC directors his company started moving dirt on July 12, two days after Bold Team received its growers’ license and just a week after an Arkansas Supreme Court decision

“At this point and time, we anticipate asking ABC to do a final inspection on our building by the week of Christmas,” Brown said. “And we put in a timeline that shows a minimum of 104 to 121 days of plant growth, [which] includes propagation, vegetation, flower and cure time. So, if we do the math — that would put us somewhere in April as an estimate to have medical marijuana available.”

Brown said his company is building a hybrid greenhouse that will produce 13 strains of marijuana for Arkansas dispensary owners to prescribe varied medicinal cannabis products to treat, suppress or manage the symptoms of a medical condition.

“We have been in touch with several of the dispensary applicants and to get timelines from [them],” said Brown, whose limited liability partnership had the second-highest score among the nearly 100 applicants. “We don’t know who is going to win until later on this month, but some have indicated they can be up and going in 60 days because they will mainly have storefronts unless they are growing.”

Two other Delta-based growers — Natural State Wellness Enterprises of Jonesboro and Little Rock-based Natural State Medicinals Enterprises — also offered similar timetables for their respective greenhouse locations in Jackson and Jefferson counties. Natural State Wellness manager Warren Ross said the venture group behind his startup firm recently broke ground and plans to complete construction in the second quarter of 2019.

Ross said his company’s Jackson County cultivation facility will be phasing in the growing process immediately after construction sometime in the spring. According to the company’s plan, Ross said it will take up 120 days to complete the growing process, which would make medical marijuana available in the July-August period, he said.

“We are designing a facility that can meet the entire demand of license holders … that are out there now,” Ross said, adding that the company’s location will be able to grow 3,000 plants at 100% capacity.

Natural State Medicinals, which had the top score of 486 under the commission’s 500-point scoring system approved by the state legislature in 2017, proposes to build its cultivation facility outside the city limits of Pine Bluff in Jefferson County. Company CEO Joseph Courtright gave a more in-depth presentation of his company’s strategic plans, noting that the two-year timeline since the company first submitted its application in September 2017 is nearly outdated.

“In an emerging industry like this, a two-year-old plan is an old plan as things have changed,” he told the board. “And we are finding that equipment and the processes used two years ago are becoming obsolete.”

Courtright said his startup firm’s partnership, which is affiliated with former USA Drug executive Stephen LaFrance, has paused construction plans for its Jefferson County location after a Pulaski County Circuit Court injunction halted the scoring and award of Arkansas’ first medical marijuana licenses in late March.

Like Bold Team, Courtright said his company hopes to have products available by April 2019. He said plans are in place to develop up to 15 strains of medical marijuana and produce over 17,000 pounds of marijuana for medical use in the first year of operations. In the second year, he said, the Pine Bluff facility hopes to ramp up to nearly 22,000 pounds of marijuana yield.

Delta Medical was the final cultivator to appear before the AMMC board. Instead of providing a timeline of when it hopes to have products available, company president Don Parker offered prepared remarks asking the five-person regulatory panel to approve the partnership’s proposal to move its planned location near ASU-Newport to another Jackson County site across the street from the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Grimes Unit prison.

“We simply want to prevent any further delays,” Parker said, adding later that his firm has spent over $3.5 million to prepare plans for the Newport cultivation facility. The Jonesboro venture group also submitted applications to the AMMC for proposed dispensary franchises in Jonesboro, Fort Smith, Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Earlier this summer, Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, asked for an opinion from the state attorney general’s office on whether Delta Medical’s application should be thrown out because its proposed greenhouse is too close to a school. ABC Director Robin Casteel has said the ABC legal staff believes the application for a cultivation center near a high school on the campus of ASU-Newport meets all the requirements of ABC regulations enacted by the legislature.

Deputy Attorney General Bruce Bowen, who also serves as AMMC’s legal counsel, told the commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting that he expects the AG’s office to issue an opinion on Sample’s request by the regulatory panel’s next meeting on Dec. 19. Urged by AMMC Chair Ronda Henry-Tillman to table a decision on Delta Medical’s request to move its location, the board voted 4-1 to delay the matter until the next meeting a week before Christmas.

Earlier in the meeting, state health officials gave the AMMC board a brief update on the approved applications for medical marijuana registry cards for qualified patients and caregivers. To date, health department officials said they have approved 6,457 of the 6,732 applications received over a two-year span. Of that total, applications were also evenly split by male and female at 51 % and 49%, respectively.

In addition, nearly 88% of the applications are white, 8% black and 4% other. In order to qualify for a medical marijuana ID card, an applicant must be an Arkansas resident 18 years or older, have an official written certification from a physician, and be diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition, which includes cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis, severe arthritis and at least a dozen other illnesses.

During a back-and-forth discussion with AMMC board members, there was agreement that the number of applicants for medical marijuana ID cards will skyrocket to more than 20,000 once medical marijuana is available.

“The market is going to continue to grow,” Courtright said. “The day the first dispensary opens, there is going to be a spike because there has been one in every state that has a new [medical marijuana] industry like this.”

Under state rules, medical marijuana ID cards will be issued approximately 30 days prior to cannabis hitting the shelf at a state-approved medical marijuana dispensary.