Regulators table medical marijuana dispensary applications until New Year

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 285 views 

The state Medical Marijuana Commission (MMC) has postponed a highly-anticipated meeting scheduled to announce the dispensary scores from a pool of nearly 200 applications until new board members are seated early next year.

Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration spokesman Scott Hardin, the MMC’s media liaison, said the delayed meeting scheduled for Wednesday (Dec. 19) will give the regulatory panel time to brief incoming commissioners appointed to the board at the close of the year.

Hardin also said representatives for the Boston-based Public Consulting Group (PCG) that was first hired in October to review and score dispensary applications were unable to attend the scheduled meeting less than a week before Christmas. PCG officials have since confirmed they would be able to attend the postponed board conference in early January, he said.

“This will provide newly appointed commissioners adequate time to receive briefings on all matters related to the MMC,” said Hardin.

Earlier this week, outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, appointed Benton police captain Kevin Russell to serve on the regulatory panel, replacing colorful and sometimes controversial board member Dr. J. Carlos Roman of Little Rock. The two-year board tenures of Roman and Dr. Stephen Carroll, a pharmacist from Benton, were set to expire on Dec. 31.

Hardin said while Carroll’s initial term will expire, the Central Arkansas pharmacist is expected to remain on the commission pending a new appointment ahead of the Jan. 9 meeting. MMC director James Miller, who holds the open seat on the panel, resigned on Dec. 12, effective immediately, Hardin said.

“But we expect a new appointment over the coming days,” said Hardin.

The five members of the commission were first announced in December 2016 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Dismang and former House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia. Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman of Little Rock was appointed by Hutchinson to serve as chair in late 2016. Gillam then appointed Carroll and Travis Story, a Fayetteville attorney. Dismang appointed both Miller of Bryant and Roman.

FRUSTRATIONS BLOSSOMING
In the meantime, frustrations among legal medical marijuana supporters continue to grow as the scheduled MMC meeting next month will take place only five days before the 2019 General Assembly convenes on Jan. 14.

In the 2017 sessions, lawmakers approved more than two dozen medical marijuana bills to set up the state’s first legal cannabis industry. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, the chief sponsor of most of the bills, both publicly voiced their opposition for legalizing medical marijuana in Arkansas before the November 2016 election.

At more recent MMC board meetings, medical cannabis supporters have become increasingly agitated, often interrupting board proceedings and openly expressing concerns that the panel and state lawmakers who approved the enabling legislation in the 2017 have intentionally delayed the roll-out of the fledgling industry.

At the same time, the race to get cannabis products on the shelf in Arkansas has also been continuously delayed by legal challenges and a host of other controversies since voters approved the ballot referendum. In late November, exactly two years after marijuana became legal in Arkansas for medical purposes, the MMC board held a specially-called public meeting in Little Rock to allow advocates and potential patients to voice their objections about the extended delays.

The MMC board first began accepting bids on June 30, 2017 for up to five marijuana growing facilities and another 32 dispensary applicants to operate in eight quadrants of the state. In the earlier process to score and award licenses for the highly-sought-after medical cultivation facilities or cannabis greeneries, it took the five commissioners more than three months to score and then award five licenses to Arkansas-based companies in late February from a pool of nearly 100 bids.

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. In late September, the regulatory panel agreed to hand over the task to score the tabled dispensary applications to PCG for nearly $100,000 following a bidding process where only two proposals were received.

Under the rules approved by the legislature in the 2017 session, the MMC has the authority to expand the number of cultivation facilities from five to eight if the need arises as the state’s medical marijuana industry grows. To date, no bills have been filed for the 2019 to amend or address any of the rules promulgated by the MMC and the staff of the Arkansas Beverage Control board.

The dispensary licenses expected to be handed out in January will be spread across Arkansas’ four congressional districts. The two-tiers of dispensaries will include those who can grow up to 50 mature marijuana plants and those who do not. Dispensaries who grow will be charged a $25,000 license fee and an annual $32,500 fee. Dispensaries who do not grow, or “storefront” retail locations, will require a $2,500 initial license fee and an annual $10,000 fee.

Next month, regulators are also expected to have in hand an opinion from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on whether Arkansas State University-Newport should be considered a school under Amendment 98, the ballot issue in the 2016 election that legalized medical marijuana in Arkansas.

That opinion, which is not legally binding, will clarify whether an application from Delta Medical Cannabis Company for a cultivation facility near ASU-Newport is valid. Earlier this year, Delta Medical received the fifth and final permit from the MMC board to open a cultivation facility in Newport, but has stalled construction out of concerns that the MMC board could rescind its permit if its planned site for a greenhouse is located too close to a school.

At the MMC board’s prior meeting three weeks ago, the five cultivators selected to grow Arkansas’ first legalized marijuana crop said they hope to have their greenhouses up and running and cannabis available by April 2091 or August 2019 at the latest.

As of Wednesday (Dec. 19), the state Health Department has processed 6,638 applications for medical marijuana registry cards for qualified patients and caregivers. Under state rules, medical marijuana ID cards will be issued approximately 30 days prior to products hitting the shelf at a state-approved cannabis dispensary.

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