It’s been 18 months since Arkansas voters passed the medical marijuana amendment, and the drug is still not available – legally under state law, anyway. It may not be available for a while, now that a judge has put a halt to awarding growers’ licenses.
But there could be a way to change that. First, the Medical Marijuana Commission could follow the governor’s advice and award growers' and dispensaries' licenses the same way alcohol permits are awarded – through a lottery. Meanwhile, the amendment’s sponsor says growers aren’t really needed yet anyway because dispensaries can meet current demand.
Before explaining, let’s recap. On March 21, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffin issued a preliminary injunction against the Medical Marijuana Commission, which was tasked with awarding licenses to cultivators (growers) and dispensaries (retail establishments).
The commission had created a scoring process and selected five cultivators out of 98 applicants, but before it could award the licenses, some of the losers sued. The commission has not yet selected its 32 dispensaries.
Judge Griffin made his decision because it’s obvious the commission’s process was fatally flawed. One commissioner is an attorney whose law firm had worked for one of the winning growers. Another gave an eyebrow-raising high score to a winning cultivator whose ownership group included a close friend.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson says the commission should have done what the state does with alcoholic beverage permits: Create a list of objective standards, and then place everyone that meets those standards into a lottery, with the winner chosen by random chance.
Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t the best team win? But looking back, the other process couldn’t have worked. Five part-time commissioners with no experience in marijuana policy subjectively graded 98 grower applications. Of course some of the losers, backed by big money, would sue.
Relying on random chance might not be ideal, but at least it’s harder for anyone to claim they’ve been cheated.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has appealed the decision. The issue is tied up in court, and there’s no way to know when the licenses will be awarded. A recent Supreme Court decision saying the state can’t be sued could apply. If so, the whole thing could be thrown out. Either way, it might take a while.
Meanwhile, about 4,500 Arkansans already have been issued marijuana cards by the Department of Health. They’re waiting to use the drug their doctors say they’re qualified for. For them, the marijuana amendment's sponsor, attorney David Couch, says the state could just leave the growers out of it and move forward with the dispensaries.
Under the terms of the amendment, each dispensary is allowed to grow 50 plants per month. Each therefore could produce up to 100 pounds of marijuana. Patients are allowed only 5 ounces per month.
The math works out that 32 dispensaries could produce enough marijuana for more than 10,000 patients – double the current demand. And the dispensaries could do this quickly. It’s not hard to set up an operation to grow 50 plants. My wife planted 40-something spinach plants this morning.
Quick question: If the dispensaries can meet demand by themselves, then what would happen with all of that excess marijuana being grown by five high-tech cultivation facilities?
Anyway, one solution for now would be to combine Couch’s math with the governor’s idea.
For the 224 applicants still competing for 32 dispensary licenses, the Medical Marijuana Commission could restart the process and use a lottery. Once the applications are awarded and the plants are grown, the 4,500 card-carrying individuals could start buying the drug.
Scott Hardin, the Department of Finance and Administration’s spokesman, says the DFA’s legal team is reviewing the next steps to be taken regarding the dispensaries. A determination will be made in the near future.
We’ll see. It’s now been a year-and-a-half since the voters approved medical marijuana, and the only way anyone can obtain it is the same way they always did.
However that is.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.