More than two years after voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, state regulators will ask the five selected pot cultivators to provide a post-Thanksgiving progress report on when cannabis products for medical use will be available to Arkansans.
The state Medical Marijuana Commission’s (AMMC) request came after a long two-hour meeting where the five-person regulatory board replayed a long debate concerning an disqualified cultivation applicant, and then heard that a Boston-based consulting firm hired to score and review nearly 200 pot dispensaries bids would complete that process within a month.
Near the end of the meeting, AMMC Chair Ronda Henry-Tillman expressed frustrations with extended delays, legal challenges and increasing criticism from lawmakers, medical marijuana supporters and waiting patients that the regulatory panel is intentionally delaying legalized pot in Arkansas.
“This will be a big meeting for them to come before us and let us know where they stand,” said Henry-Tillman, asking the commission’s staff to have available timeline and dates available to the public at a scheduled Nov. 28 board meeting.
“It is really difficult at this point because people are looking at the commission as holding up the process, so we need to be really clear to our (medical marijuana) cultivators as well to know where we are standing so we can be transparent and get information to the public,” said the AMMC chair, appointed two years ago by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
That planned meeting will take place nearly a week after Thanksgiving Day and about a month before the terms of two commissioners will expire. The five members of the commission were first announced by Hutchinson, former House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, and outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, following the November 2016 election when Arkansas voters strongly backed legalized pot for medical patients.
Besides Henry-Tillman of Little Rock, Gillam appointed Dr. Stephen Carroll, a pharmacist from Benton, and Travis Story, a Fayetteville attorney. Dismang appointed James Miller of Bryant and Dr. J. Carlos Roman, a Little Rock physician. Roman’s and Carroll’s two-year terms officially expire at the end of 2018.
Before those two board members step down or are reappointed in 2019 by new House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado and Senate Pro Tempore-elect Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, the regulatory panel hopes to have already selected up to 32 startup companies to kickstart the fledgling industry by early 2019.
In August, the MMC 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. At Tuesday’s long meeting, Deputy Attorney General Bruce Bowen told the commissioners that he and Arkansas Beverage Control (ABC) Director Mary Robin Casteel have been apprised that the East Coast healthcare consulting group will hand the applications back to the AMMC in early December.
“As of Friday, they are on track and the anticipated return of the results are between Dec 7-14,” said Bowen, who acts as AMMC legal counsel. “They are hopeful that they will be able to finish before that, but as of right now they are on track to finish within that timeframe.”
CARPENTER FARMS COMPLAINT
Earlier in the meeting, Bowen and commissioners sparred with state Democratic Reps. Reginald Murdock of Forrest City and Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff concerning the regulators decision in the summer to disqualify the cultivation application of Carpenter Farms Medical Group (CFMG) in Grady.
The South Arkansas startup originally had the sixth-highest score out of the 322 applications submitted to Department of Finance and Administration and ABC staff in September 2017. 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 ABC staff had originally approved CFMG’s application and others in a pool of 85 bids that were reviewed and scored by the commissioners in late 2017 and early 2018. The five eventual winners selected by the commissioners in February were Natural State Medicinals Cultivation, Bold Team LLC, Natural State Wellness Enterprises, Osage Creek Cultivation, and Delta Medical Cannabis Company Inc.
Speaking on behalf of CFMG’s Abraham Carpenter, a well-known black Pine Bluff farmer who heads the Grady cultivation facility, Murdock and Flowers urged the commissioners to revisit the staff’s decision to throw out the marijuana startup’s application.
“We have a responsibility to the state of Arkansas to do what the voters asked for, but to do it in a way that is fair to all. We should not send this citizen to the courtroom,” said Murdock, looking back at Carpenter.
After engaging in a long discussion with the two Arkansas legislators over the constitutionality of the board’s 3-2 decision to disqualify CFMG’s application, Bowen counseled commissioners to uphold their earlier result based on rules promulgated by the legislature in 2017 and later adopted by the regulators.
“From my perspective, in your rules, you do not have the authority or mechanism to reconsider information once an application has been turned down,” said Bowen. “The recourse or the due process afforded applicants is a denial letter that will be issued by you. And once (CFMG) receive the denial letter, they can seek recourse by filing a (lawsuit)” in circuit court.
After additional back-and-forth between the state lawmakers, Bowen and commissioners, Henry-Tillman quizzed her fellow board members and reaffirmed the AMMC’s earlier decision to throw out CFMG’s planned pot greenery and 16 other applications after finding they had incomplete ownership data or other missing information.
FUTURE LEGAL CHALLENGES
Immediately afterward, a clearly dismayed Murdock, Flowers and Carpenter exited the AMMC board meeting. Carpenter could not be reached for comment but has said in the past that he would patiently wait until the commissioners heard his complaint before deciding whether to file a lawsuit that could potentially halt the entry of Arkansas into the legalized pot industry again.
In late March, a court ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen declared the commission’s process of scoring and awarding Arkansas’ first licenses to five pot cultivators as “null and void,” citing the constitutional amendment approved by voters. That decision, however, was overruled by the state Supreme Court on July 21 and opened the door for the panel to restart the process.
The prospects of additional delays lead to a public airing of complaints and questions to the AMMC board in Little Rock on Oct. 16. At Tuesday’s meeting, Henry-Tillman answered all those questions public with help from the agency’s legal counsel, telling an irritated audience that those answers would later be posted on the AMMC’s website.
One of the questions wondered if any of the five cultivation startups selected by the AMMC had actually grown any medical marijuana product. In response, Casteel replied that all of those companies were still in the construction phase.
“No one should be growing (marijuana) at this point,” she said.
Meanwhile, many legalized pot proponents in Arkansas are angry that the state has lost its chance to be an industry leader across the South for the treatment of medical marijuana patients.
Since issuing its first medical pot cultivation and dispensary licenses in August, Oklahoma has signed up more than 12,000 medical marijuana patients and has raked in nearly $7 million in application fees from growers and processors. Voters in the Sooner State approved a ballot measure in late June. Missouri voters also approved a medical marijuana initiative during the Nov. 6 election.
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, 6,395 medical marijuana registry cards have been approved for patients and caregivers. 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.