The state initially will grant licenses to five marijuana cultivation facilities, one for each of its five public health regions, the newly formed Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission decided Tuesday.
The vote was the first step taken by the commission to move the state closer to allowing certain patients access to the drug.
The amendment passed by voters in November requires the commission to license between four and eight cultivation facilities and 20 to 40 dispensaries. The commission’s chair, Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, of Little Rock, emphasized that five is an initial limit, not a permanent one.
Commissioner Travis Story, a Fayetteville attorney, started the discussion by expressing concern that having too many facilities would produce an oversupply of the drug, depressing profits for the new businesses. He suggested four as a start, perhaps located one per each congressional district. But there was a concern among some commissioners that Arkansas’ unevenly sized congressional districts could leave some areas of the state underserved, so commissioners voted for five cultivators, one for each of the state’s public health regions.
The commissioners must make their decisions quickly because the amendment requires rules to be written within 120 days of the amendment’s passage, or March 9. Attorney Joel DiPippa with the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) Office of Revenue Counsel told them that, to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act’s public comment requirement, draft rules will need to be written by late January. To meet that deadline, commissioners scheduled their next meetings for Dec. 22 and Dec. 27.
Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, has filed a bill that would give another 60 days to the commission, the Department of Health and DFA’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Division to set rules. DiPippa warned commissioners that they should not count on that bill passing.
Commissioners spent some time discussing what a cultivation facility should look like – what kind of security it should have, how big an operation it should be, etc. Commissioner Dr. Carlos Roman suggested a field trip to another state to see what an operation looks like. Roman asked if money was available for travel expenses. DiPippa said DFA was looking for funds as well as an appropriate place to visit.
Afterward, David Couch, an attorney and the author and sponsor of the amendment, said commissioners were acting outside the scope of their authority by discussing topics such as testing, labeling and production, which are under the authority of the Department of Health and the ABC board. He said the amendment gives the commission the authority to make rules and regulations about cultivation and dispensary applications and the methods for rewarding licenses.
“Their purview is to make sure that the applicant can meet the requirements that are set forth by the other two agencies,” he said.
Story, who is also an attorney, said the amendment gives the commission broader authority than what Couch was describing and that it needs to make “holistic” decisions.
“I think we’ve got pretty broad discretion on how we’re going to make this work. … I think there’s a lot of options that the commission has in what we’re going to do to ultimately, how we’re going to license, regulate it and go forward,” he said.
Story said the commission “would be the one that would start the process. The agencies would come behind us. I don’t think we want to exclude the agencies. We’re very much trying to figure out all this as the agencies themselves do. We want to be our own body, and I think that’s important to me is we don’t necessarily need everybody telling us what to do.”
DiPippa said the amendment requires the Department of Health, ABC and the new commission to create rules as an “interlocking jigsaw.” DFA has provided the commission 15 pages of draft rules, but DiPippa said it’s meant to provide a framework. In some places it provides options from which the commission can choose.
“I believe that there’s some valid concerns that the members of the commission want to look at, especially with their backgrounds,” he said. “I understand Mr. Couch’s concern with whether or not the commission is going beyond the charge of merely licensing and registering the cultivation facilities and dispensaries. However, I do believe that at the end of the day, he will see rules that reflect appropriately their charge.”