Several medical doctors today hinted that they would not prescribe medical marijuana to patients even when such treatment is available because its risks and benefits are scientifically unproven.
Still, the Arkansas Board of Health unanimously (with one abstention and a few absences) approved the health department's draft rules and regulations for medical marijuana. It now begins a phase of adoption that includes public hearings.
"There are patients who really believe this is helpful, regardless of any scientific information," said Dr. Eddie Bryant, "and they’re putting physicians in very awkward positions of trying to argue what we consider truthful scientific information with people who have unfounded beliefs."
Dr. Clark Fincher asked Robert Brech, general counsel at the department and legal point person for its medical marijuana division, what his recourse is if he won't fulfill patients' requests for medical marijuana on ethical or moral grounds. Brech said he imagines many doctors will not, and he has heard from some of them.
The board agreed with a $50 application fee drafted in the rules. That dollar figure's based on an estimate of roughly 30,000 Arkansans signing up — an estimate arrived at by looking at enrollment in other states — and that the program will cost the health department $1.5 million a year.
"Regarding children," chiropractor Beverly Foster said, "my concern is ... we don’t really understand the effects of these sorts of chemicals on an emerging developing brain, and beyond that, the child doesn’t really have a participation in deciding what to put into their bodies," because presumably a parent and doctor dictate the regimen.
Several board members asked Brech about child-proof packaging and warning labels.
The Department of Health is charged with testing and labeling the product, and registering patients and doctors, while the Department of Finance and Administration is responsible for the business and security end of things.
Board members also questioned Brech about when and if federal authorities will shut it down. Marijuana is still federally prohibited, and federal law supersedes state law.
"You know the only reason that this is allowed in the states is because the justice department has agreed to look the other way," Brech said, adding the presumptive Attorney General Jeff Sessions is opposed to legal marijuana in any form.
But the board ultimately acceded to the draft after asking for a slight labeling change. They also asked for Brech and the department to lobby the governor and legislators about a change to something called diverting.
"Under the amendment, it allows for a qualifying patient who has a registration card and has marijuana, they can share that or transfer that to another individual who has a qualifying condition or has a registration card. So if I have a card and you have a card, we can share marijuana. The reason doctors and physicians have a problem with that is you can’t do that with other prescription drugs. I mean, I can’t share my hydrocodone with you. I mean, it kind of goes against what their training is, what their philosophy is. It is allowable under the amendment, but as they suggested, I’ll let those wishes be known to the governor’s office and the legislators."
Brech predicted more than once that it’ll be next January before marijuana is available for patients in the state.
The 36-page draft rules and regulations isn't yet posted at healthy.arkansas.gov, but one may be requested at email@example.com, or by calling (501) 661-2367.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting atarkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.