Arkansas will get its first hint this week of just how large the state's medical marijuana industry will become with hundreds of applications expected to be delivered for those wanting to grow and sell the drug. But there are still a host of challenges that remain as the state prepares to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for people with certain ailments.
Monday marked the deadline for applications to be submitted to the state for dispensaries that will sell marijuana and cultivation facilities that will grow it, kicking off an arduous process for a state panel to sift through those proposals and score them. The state was expecting a flurry of last-minute proposals on the deadline day.
“Everyone was bracing themselves for Monday knowing it's going to be an extremely busy day,” said Scott Hardin, spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration.
The state will allow five cultivation facilities and 32 dispensaries, with the dispensaries divided equally among eight regions throughout the state. The five-member Medical Marijuana Commission will spend the coming weeks going through the applications and scoring them based on several factors, including ability to operate the facility, qualifications and its operations plan.
Two groups have indicated that they plan to apply for growing operations in Jefferson County.
Natural State Agronomics, led by Jefferson County native Ken Shollmier, is hoping to open a facility in a former medical building near Redfield. And in Pine Bluff, Newsouth Agriculture, LLC is proposing to operate a cultivation/production facility for medical marijuana at 2404 South University Avenue.
But these plans hinge on being picked as one of the five companies who receive lincensure from the state to grow medicinal marijuana.
Hardin said in an e-mail that “at this point the only thing we can share is the total number of applications received (73 dispensary apps and 34 cultivation apps as of 8 a.m. (Monday). However, we've processed more than 70 additional apps since then). The specifics of the applications fall under an FOIA exemption until we provide the apps to the Medical Marijuana Commission for review/scoring (at the time we give them to the Commission they will also be provided to anyone who requests them via FOIA).
“We haven't shared the location of applications, names, etc. Our first step starting tomorrow is to 'depersonalize' each application. The Commissioners will be scoring the applications on merit of the app without any influence of the individual behind it. It will take some time to depersonalize each application as they range from 500 pages on the low end to more than 3,000 pages on the high end.”
Part of the process will involve removing names and other information from the applications that could identify individuals associated with the applications, and Hardin said the average length of an application is 1,000 pages. It's unclear when the commission will be in a position to award permits.
David Couch, the attorney who spearheaded the campaign for medical marijuana legalization last year, said he expects at least 40 applications for cultivation facilities and at least 300 for dispensaries. Couch, the acting executive director for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association, said the hard part will be sifting through what he says will be a high number of applications from well-established businesses.
“I think it's going to be very difficult for the commission,” Couch said. “I think you're going to have a lot of high-quality applications. You may see the top five separated by a point or less.”
The state Health Department says it's already approved nearly 1,200 applications for registry cards for patients with qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana. The patients, however, won't receive the cards until 30 days before the product is available in the state.
The roll out of medical marijuana in Arkansas comes as its opponents are preparing new fights at the local level over the drug. The conservative Family Council Action Committee, which campaigned against the marijuana amendment last year, is looking at assisting efforts in local communities to prevent dispensaries and cultivation facilities from opening. The amendment allows citizens to petition for a local-option vote to ban dispensaries and cultivation, and the council's head says the group has found people in at least three counties interested in holding petition drives.
“We are poised to step up and offer resources to those local communities that may not want those facilities in their jurisdictions,” said Jerry Cox, the committee's president.
How the state handles the potential deluge of applications coming in for those facilities could determine where those next fights wind up.