A House committee on Wednesday (Feb. 13) refused to take up legislation to expand the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana after two of the state’s top health and medical officials told lawmakers that Gov. Asa Hutchinson was adamantly against the proposal.
House Bill 1050, sponsored by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, failed to get a motion for approval before the House Select Committee on Rules despite moving testimony from medical patients across the state on how legal and illegal marijuana has changed their life.
“That’s the end of it, probably,” House told reporters after an hour-long committee hearing where more than a dozen potential medical marijuana patients across the state testified in favor of HB 1050. “I presented these people’s case to the committee. They heard it and they (lawmakers) felt like it doesn’t need to be done at this time.”
Asked if he was disappointed that his bill failed to even get a motion from fellow House members, House said he was not. “I think if the governor had opposed it that probably was persuasive enough for many of the committee members,” he said.
Earlier, before a long line of HB 1050 supporters cried, begged and urged the committee to approve House’s bill, state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe and Arkansas Department of Health Director Nate Smith spoke against the bill on behalf of Gov. Hutchinson, who originally opposed the 2016 initiated act approved by Arkansas voters to make medical marijuana legal.
Smith told the panel that state law already has a mechanism for expanding the current list of qualifying conditions, including a medical review process by the Health Department. “Only one condition has been submitted under that process,” he said.
The Health Department chief also said most of the maladies and diseases now on the qualifying conditions list were already covered under the symptoms of pain, muscle spasms and peripheral neuropathy. Smith also said that the state health department doesn’t have a mechanism for removing conditions from the list even when there is medical proof that cannabis treatment doesn’t help or can harm a patient.
For example, Smith said there is now effective treatment and cures for more than 90% of Hepatitis C patients, but medical marijuana treatment for the disease has shown to be detrimental to those cannabis users.
“It makes the disease progress more rapidly,” said Smith, a physician. “So, we should be careful what we add and what we subtract from the list (of qualifying) conditions.”
Bledsoe, an emergency room physician by training, made the committee aware that he “and the governor are very opposed” to HB 1050. “Mainly because we feel the patients in Arkansas that will possibly benefit from medical marijuana are already covered under the prior legislation that was passed earlier (in 2017),” he said.
The state’s Surgeon General also emphasized that medical marijuana doesn’t cure any diseases, so there was no need to expand the list that includes such conditions as cancer, HIV-AIDs, Hep C, Multiple Sclerosis, severe arthritis, nausea, and glaucoma, he said.
Before Smith’s and Bledsoe’s testimony, Melissa Fults and Brandon Thornton offered a different view in support of HB 1050. Fults told the House panel that medical patients in Arkansas don’t want to resort to buying marijuana “off the street” or driving to Oklahoma, Colorado and other states to get the cannabis products they need.
“We want to make sure that it is safe, clean and it has been tested,” said Fults, who runs the Arkansas Drug Policy Education Group in Hensley with her husband, Gary. “We want to follow the law, but there are too many patients that got left behind with the (2017) law.”
Fults then pleaded with the panel to approve HB 1050, saying she has not had an asthma attack in seven years because of cannabis treatment. She also noted that many Arkansans have come forward and provided anecdotal evidence that medical marijuana has shown to be an effective treatment for autism.
“There are 17 conditions right now that can get (medical marijuana) legally. Let’s come out of the dark. We want to make sure all these patients get (treatment), so I am begging you to please pass this on to the House,” she said.
Thornton, CEO of Steep Hill Arkansas, a local cannabis testing lab that opened for business in December, told the committee that Arkansas patients should have the option of counseling with their local doctor and finding an effective treatment plan that works for them.
“If a physician believes that cannabis can help their patient, then Arkansas law shouldn’t stand in the way,” said Thornton, a local pharmacist who also serves as secretary of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association.
Despite that emotional testimony, Arkansas’ medical marijuana industry is expected to get underway in a few weeks without the dramatic expansion of the list of qualifying conditions. Several lawmakers said they would welcome revisiting the issue as Arkansas’ marijuana industry matures and there is more evidence to support expanding the list beyond the current list of conditions.
Last week, all 32 of the medical cannabis dispensaries approved by Arkansas regulators in early January to begin selling medical-grade marijuana paid their $15,000 licensing fees and posted the necessary $100,000 performance bonds in hopes of starting business by early April.
If that April timetable holds true, the first cannabis for medical use will be sold in Arkansas exactly 2-1/2 years after voters approved Amendment 98, the ballot issue in the November 2016 election that legalized medical marijuana in Arkansas.
As of Feb. 7, state Health Department officials had certified nearly 7,126 patients who have at least one of the 18 medical conditions that qualify for treatment with medical marijuana, an increase of 122 patients from a week ago. The department anticipates that it will begin to issue the medical marijuana cards to certified patients in mid-February.
In addition to Wednesday’s hearing on HB 1050, the state Medical Marijuana Commission is expected to review transportation and distribution rules before the first cannabis product can be sold this spring at one of the 32 storefronts across eight quadrants of the state.