Medical Marijuana Architect OK On Commission Picks, Worries Over New Taxes & Salaries

Dec 8, 2016

Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state health officials urging opposition to two medical marijuana ballot measures (file photo).
Credit David Monteith / KUAR News

Arkansas took a few more steps toward implementing its voter-approved medical marijuana program this week and the constitutional amendment’s architect says he has faith that a conservative administration is so far faithfully carrying it out. Although, attorney David Couch does have some reservations about what the state legislature might do to the healthcare program during next year’s legislative session.

On Wednesday Governor Asa Hutchinson (R), House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) and Senate President Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) announced appointments for the five-member Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission. KUAR covered the announcement and comments from Republican leaders.

Couch says he’d thought there would be more business people appointed to the commission. Three medical professionals, a railroad lobbyist, and an attorney were appointed to the posts. None said they voted for what was then Issue 6 on the November ballot. But Couch doesn’t think personal politics will color how regulatory and licensing decisions are made on the commission.

“They realize this passed with 53-54 percent of the vote,” says Couch. “I think the leadership of the General Assembly and the governor are true when they say they’re going to try and implement this in a fair and responsible manner.”

Couch will be looking out to see how rules shape up as commissioner’s get to work before a June deadline (that may be extended in the legislature to July).

“There should be some minimum qualification and since there are a limited number of dispensaries and cultivation facilities they need to have some geographical disbursement. It’s limited to four in any one county so they need to see what counties would be most appropriate,” says Couch. “If there are several that are equally qualified you could have a lottery selection then.”

The constitutional amendment allows for four to eight cultivation centers and between 20 to 40 dispensaries. Those provisions, along with qualifying medical conditions, can not be limited by the legislature. But other areas of the amendment, like levying additional fees, are permissible as long as a two-thirds vote can be mustered. Republicans control about three-quarters of both chambers. Couch thinks there will be attempts to subvert the will of voters.

“We need to watch out for people who want to impose an additional tax on it to try and limit the program, to make it more expensive than it should be. I think there are probably organizations like the pharmacists that actively oppose this. They don’t like it as a competitor so I think they’ll try and change the program and limit it severely,” says Couch.

Speaking after a press conference on Wednesday on the commission appointments, State Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that several members want to give commissioners $30,000 a year.The voter-approved constitutional amendment only calls for commissioners to be given $85 a day for expenses when they meet. House told the newspaper that because the commissioners come from high paying professions they should be paid more for their service to the state. Couch thinks that overly generous.

“During the campaign they were campaigning about the cost of this program,” says Couch. “I see this as an honor to be on the commission. I don’t think they need to be paid $30,000 a year. Once the rules are established to begin with and the dispensaries licenses are done the first time around there’s really no work for the commission other than renewals. I think that’s a little much money for someone to do that.”

The legislative session begins in January.