The uneven roll-out of the state’s legal marijuana industry on Friday and Saturday is expected to extend into next week as hundreds of patients crowded two Hot Springs stores to purchase medical-grade cannabis for the first time.
Late Friday evening, following final inspection earlier in the week by the Arkansas Beverage Control’s Enforcement division, Green Springs Medical dispensary at 309 Seneca St., in Hot Springs was the state’s second medical marijuana retailer to receive approval from state regulators to put cannabis products on the shelf in Garland County’s largest city.
Doctor’s Orders RX, also in Hot Springs, was the first to receive clearance more than a week ago. They opened for business on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., officially becoming Arkansas’ first dispensary to sell legal cannabis products to a smattering of the nearly 12,000 patients with doctor-approved, state-issued medical marijuana cards.
Don Sears, owner of Doctor’s Orders at 4893 Malvern Ave., said his startup worked through minor problems during a trial run on Friday. He said progress was slow because of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission’s (MMC) state-mandated software that allows dispensaries to tie each sale to a medical marijuana cardholder.
“As a result, we were able to sell medical marijuana to an Arkansan with a physician-issued medical marijuana card. Patients will be served on a first-come, first-served basis (but) product availability is limited. We expect long lines and apologize for any inconvenience. However, at this time, processing schedules are unpredictable and out of our control,” Sears said. “But we are thrilled to, finally, be able to provide Arkansans with the prescriptions they have waited more than two years to fill.”
On Saturday morning, there were about 200 people in line when the local dispensary opened. Doctor’s Orders spokesman Bailey Moll, with Little Rock public relations firm JPJ Consulting, said the MMC software was still “not super-fast,” which led to fewer sales transactions being processed than the expected 20 people per hour.
“In reality, it has been more like six,” Moll told Talk Business & Politics. “Some of that has to do with every person being a first-time customer and getting them into the system. Hopefully it will improve over time.”
Despite the bumpy and unceremonious grand-opening of the state’s fledging medical industry, MMC Chair Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman acknowledged the historic event more than 2-1/2 years after Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize for medical use in the November 2016 election.
“We are pleased to see medical marijuana dispensaries open, and are glad that patients will be able to access the appropriate cannabis product and possible relief they have patiently been awaiting since the passage of Amendment 98,” Henry-Tillman said in a statement.
State regulators also acknowledged that access to cannabis product in the coming weeks will be limited to the two Hot Springs dispensaries because there are no scheduled inspections in ABC’s application pipeline, meaning none of the 30 remaining retailers across the state will soon open for business.
All 32 medical cannabis dispensaries approved by Arkansas regulators in early January to sell medical marijuana have paid the $15,000 licensing fee and posted the necessary $100,000 performance bond to sell cannabis after the ABC’s final inspection. However, several dispensary applications reviewed by Talk Business & Politics indicate they are not expected to open until the second half of 2019 and early 2020.
And although each of the eight quadrants of the state was approved for four retailers apiece, the state’s map of dispensary locations shows most will be clustered near many of the state’s urban centers or county seats. For example, West Memphis and Hot Springs in Zones 3 and 6, respectively, were approved by state regulators for three dispensary locations each. Pine Bluff, Texarkana, Fayetteville and Bentonville will each have two dispensaries in their respective zones. Little Rock, Conway and Fort Smith, all county seats with populations exceeding 65,000, have one dispensary. Bluffton, located in Yell County with less than 250 people, will be the smallest community with a cannabis retailer when River Valley Dispensary is expected to open later this year in Zone 4.
But even if more dispensaries were open, there would still be a limited supply of marijuana available, said state regulators. After passing final ABC inspection in January, Bold Team LLC produced the first harvest of legal marijuana nearly a month ago, but yielded only 200 pounds of crop.
“That is the product that is currently being sold at Doctor’s Orders and will be sold beginning Monday at Green Springs Medical,” said state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin, the media liaison for the MMC and ABC. “While there have been concerns regarding running out of product, the maximum purchase for any patient is 5 ounces every 14 days and dispensaries may only process so many customers at a time due to the information required for each transaction.”
The MMC board awarded marijuana-growing licenses a year ago to five cultivation startups, located mainly in the agriculture-rich Arkansas Delta region. Besides Bold Team’s cultivation facility in Woodruff County, ABC officials have also given Osage Creek Cultivation in Berryville and Natural State Medicinals ’ in White Hall the go-ahead to begin cannabis-growing operations. Osage Creek officials have remained mum about the first marijuana crop for the state’s lone growing facility in Northwest Arkansas. Plans for Natural State’s marijuana greenhouse in Jefferson County were delayed because of overturned complaints filed with MMC board concerning the grower’s application. Two other Delta-based growers — Natural State Wellness Enterprises and Delta Medical Cannabis Company, both of Jonesboro — have not submitted final plans for their respective growing facilities in Jackson and Jefferson counties.
As of May 9, state health officials had certified nearly 11,739 patients who have at least one of the 18 medical conditions that qualify for treatment with medical marijuana, up nearly 900 from two weeks ago.