Arkansas House Passes Two Medical Marijuana Bills, One Narrowly

State Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock).
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

The Arkansas House of Representatives passed two bills changing the state’s medical marijuana amendment Tuesday, including narrowly passing one change the bills’ sponsor said was necessary to ensure physicians would certify patients have a qualifying medical condition. Both now move to the Senate.

House Bill 1058, by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, strikes a phrase in the amendment requiring physicians to provide written certification that marijuana’s potential health benefits would outweigh the risks for a patient. Doctors would still be required to certify in writing that the patient has a qualifying medical condition. The Department of Health will issue identification cards allowing patients to purchase the drug.

House told the representatives that medical marijuana is “basically a homeopathic remedy” that is illegal nationally and cannot be prescribed by a physician, and that there is no medical standard for prescribing its use. A written certification is not the same as writing a prescription. Requiring doctors to certify that rewards outweigh risks would subject them to liability concerns, could negate their medical malpractice coverage, and could discourage many from prescribing the drug, he said.

Because the bill amends an amendment, it required a two-thirds vote. It passed 70-23-1.

Prior to the vote, Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-East End, asked House if federal law generally trumps state law (House said it does), while Rep. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, asked if the amendment is a violation of federal law (House said it is). Rep. Kim Hammmer, R-Benton, asked what would happen if the the bill did not pass, to which House replied that physicians would not feel comfortable prescribing the drug. Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, expressed concerns about amending an amendment passed by voters. Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said the amendment passed by voters included the safeguard of doctors saying the benefits outweigh the risks. He said the market would address the problem House’s bill was attempting to address. The five were among those voting against the bill.

House told legislators he had voted against the amendment at the ballot box, but he had been asked by Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, two months before the election to help implement either of the two medical marijuana measures then on the ballot if they passed. Like a good soldier, he was doing that. He related the biblical story of when the Israelites decided they wanted a king against the advice of the prophet Samuel. He said Samuel, with God’s guidance, had accepted the will of the people, and so would he.

“The people told us what they want. We’re doing our best to try to get it. No, it’s not perfect, but I think it’s the best we can do,” he said.

The bill also would clarify that an application for a registry identification card is not a medical record, but it is still exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Dispensary records also would be confidential and exempt from the act. House said making the information part of a medical record would put various people dealing with the information at risk of violating federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy laws, including police officers and state agency employees.

House said afterward that he was “pretty confident” the bill was going to pass, even though he knew there was opposition.

Representatives also passed House Bill 1026 by House, which would extend rulemaking deadlines to 180 days from the current 120 days after the November election. House told his fellow representatives that the 120 days allowed by the amendment was “unworkable” under the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, which requires time for public comment.

The bill applies to the Department of Health, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, and the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, which was created by the amendment to regulate the licensure of cultivation and dispensary facilities. The bill passed 91-0, with eight not voting and Mayberry voting present.

Rep. House has three other bills that recently have been amended and will be considered by the House Rules Committee next week. House Bill 1049 would clarify the types of “felony of violence” that would exclude someone from receiving a cultivation or dispensary license. House Bill 1051 would add a licensure procedure for transporters, distributors and processors. House Bill 1057 would add criminal background check procedures.

Rep. House said afterward that a bill may be filed as early as Friday clarifying what an employer can do to maintain worker safety. A bill will be filed in a couple of weeks that would instruct the Medical Marijuana Commission to pass rules against “attractive nuisances” that would draw children’s attention.

Also still to come are an appropriation bill for the Medical Marijuana Commission of perhaps $200,000 to pay stipends and expenses, and another appropriation for the Department of Finance and Administration to pay for initial expenses before revenues are generated. The DFA appropriation could be about $300,000, House said.