Advocates, Regulators Discuss Future Of Medical Marijuana In Arkansas

Sep 21, 2017

Talk show host Montel Williams speaks to the crowd at the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association symposium Wednesday.
Credit Daniel Breen / KUAR News

Potential operators of medical marijuana cultivation facilities and dispensaries came together at a half-day symposium in Little Rock Wednesday to discuss their expectations of what the new industry will be like.

Among the attendees was TV host Montel Williams, who gave the keynote address at the event organized by the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association. Williams has multiple sclerosis, and has long advocated for medicinal cannabis use. His visit had added significance, since he recently accepted a position on the association’s board.

One hopeful distributor, who didn’t want to be named pending the approval of his license, said applications averaged about 1,000 pages long. 

Crowds listen as key figures in the medical marijuana industry discuss its future in Arkansas.
Credit Daniel Breen / KUAR News

“The application process was rather intense. We had over a three-and-a-half week process of 18 hours a day, just really in-depth, very in-depth process,” he said. 

The symposium, which was held at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, came two days after the deadline for would-be marijuana cultivators and dispensary operators to file applications with the state. According to Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association Board member Dan Roda, the number of applications received by the Department of Finance and Administration were around 300. 

Though legal medical pot represents a promising untapped market for some, Williams stressed most revenue from the cannabis industry should benefit patients. Mollie Balfe echoed this sentiment, saying her community of El Dorado seeks to benefit from a marijuana dispensary. 

“I think that it is the individual company’s responsibility to stimulate their own community with the money that they may make. As far as what the state does with their money, I feel that’s something out of our control,” Balfe said.

Balfe manages communications for South Arkansas Cannabis Solutions, a group that applied for both cultivation and distribution licenses. She says putting patients before profits benefits both the industry and its customer base.

Biochemist Andrew Blakeman with Edmond, Oklahoma based In-House Labs, LLC explains quality control testing procedures for medical marijuana.
Credit Daniel Breen / KUAR News

“We are in this for our patients’ care. Great, we’ll make a wonderful profit in the meantime, but first and foremost we care about our patients and in the next five years, think of all the patients there are to come,” Balfe said. “Tens of thousands will apply as they increase the amounts of qualifying conditions, and with those increased qualifying conditions will come more research." 

While her group plans to offer free cannabis products to hospice patients in her city, Balfe says her group’s services could help curb the growing opioid epidemic.

“People out there are worried people are going to get addicted to cannabis, that it’s the ‘gateway drug.’ But, as Montel said, it could be the gateway drug away from opioids. And I feel in Union County we have a clear problem with that,” Balfe said.

Like Montel Williams, MyKenya Fletcher also has multiple sclerosis. She made the drive from Pine Bluff because she’s considering trying to get a prescription for marijuana.

“So far, I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t have the pain, but I have other problems. So I was just trying to see exactly, if I did have to do it, would it benefit me or not,” Fletcher said.

Though she no longer feels the pain associated with MS, Fletcher says she’s experienced many symptoms described by Williams in her 21 years of having the disease. 

TV personality Montel Williams talks with medicinal cannabis advocates at the William H. Bowen School of Law in Little Rock.
Credit Daniel Breen / KUAR News

“I have numbness, and I know what he’s talking about in the feet. It feels like rocks. I’ve had that in my hand, it felt like I left my hand sitting in hot, scalding water,” Fletcher said. “The mobility problems, and some memory problems, short-term memory problems.” 

Amid the promising statistics and personal testimonies from both stars and regular folks, Fletcher says she’s still on the fence about applying for a medical marijuana card to alleviate her MS symptoms.

“Maybe. I’m not exactly sure, it all depends on whether or not it will work for me with the problems that I have,” Fletcher said. “Because like I said, a lot of times it’s for the pain and I usually don’t have pain, I’ve come to a stage where I’m pain-free pretty much. But I’m not going to say I’m going to stay that way.”

Applicants say they expect to hear back from the state as soon as November.