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Cannabis is coming! 

With strict deadlines in place, regulators hustle to ready for medical marijuana.

ON TRACK: David Couch, the co-author of the amendment, says he believes the state will meet its implementation deadlines. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • ON TRACK: David Couch, the co-author of the amendment, says he believes the state will meet its implementation deadlines.

The good news is medical marijuana passed easily in Arkansas on Election Day. Issue 6, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, writes into the state Constitution a right to medical cannabis and a basic regulatory structure under which it will be administered to Arkansas patients. The amendment also sets a number of fast-approaching deadlines for implementation, which has regulators scrambling to meet deadlines. Still, the authors of Issue 6 and the director of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which will oversee part of the regulation of dispensaries and grow centers, say they're confident the state will meet deadlines and get marijuana into the hands of patients in need.

Under the amendment, there are over a dozen qualifying conditions that will allow a patient to get a medical marijuana card once the regulations are in place. These conditions include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Tourette's syndrome, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe arthritis, fibromyalgia and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, there are five general categories that the co-author of the act, David Couch, hopes will work as a kind of catchall to help patients with serious conditions that don't fit any of the named conditions. These include any "chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces ... cachexia or wasting syndrome; peripheral neuropathy; intractable pain, which is pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment, or surgical measures for more than six months; severe nausea; seizures, including without limitation those characteristic of epilepsy; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including without limitation those characteristic of multiple sclerosis."

The public can also apply to the Department of Health to have additional conditions added to the list of qualifying conditions. Under the act, if the health department rejects a citizen-offered addition to the list of qualifying conditions, applicants may appeal their case to Pulaski County Circuit Court.

Along with police and courts, schools, landlords, licensing boards and employers are forbidden from penalizing registered medical marijuana users in any way for their use of prescribed medical marijuana, and patients are exempt from laws forbidding marijuana paraphernalia if it is associated with their medical use. The Department of Health is tasked with administering and enforcing the provisions of the amendment, including issuing registry identification cards to patients and designated caregivers.

Under the act, a five-member Medical Marijuana Commission must be established within 30 days of passage, with the commission consisting of two members chosen by the Senate president, two chosen by the speaker of the House of Representatives and one chosen by the governor. The commission must hold its first meeting within 45 days of the approval of the amendment.

Within 120 days after the approval of the amendment — March 9, 2017 — the health department is required to adopt rules governing how it considers applications and renewals of medical marijuana cards, its standards for labeling and testing of marijuana sold in Arkansas, and "any other matters necessary for the department's fair, impartial, stringent, and comprehensive administration of this amendment." Within 180 days of the approval of the amendment — May 8, 2017 — the health department must adopt rules to govern how it will consider petitions from the public to add medical conditions to the list of qualifying conditions.

By July 1, 2017, the General Assembly must create funding for the Medical Marijuana Commission and the Vocational and Technical Training Special Revenue Fund, which will dispense tax dollars raised from medical marijuana to approved vocational and technical training programs in the state.

Couch says he believes the state is on track to meet its deadlines. He said cannabis should be available to qualifying patients by next fall. "I think our state government anticipated that this was going to pass, and I think that they've been preparing for the possibility," Couch said. "I take [Governor] Asa [Hutchinson] at his word that the people of Arkansas have spoken and I have no reason to doubt, as far as the majority of Republicans go, that they will follow the will of the people and try to implement this in a fair, safe and responsible manner."

Couch said that in crafting the amendment, he looked carefully at measures that passed in other states, and the loopholes opponents found to blunt their effectiveness in getting cannabis into the hands of patients. He says now that the measure passed by a clear majority of voters across the state, the General Assembly will move quickly to work toward implementation, in spite of limited opposition from groups like the Family Council.

"I believe there are a lot of people in the General Assembly who are Republicans who get this," Couch said. "Republicans have to be careful because you have that evangelical wing who will primary you, but now that this has passed, I believe they won't muck with it." Couch estimates there are around 40,000 patients in the state who will immediately qualify for a medical marijuana card under the conditions of the amendment.

While getting the ABC involved in regulation of medical marijuana was controversial during the campaign — Issue 7 required the health department to regulate the drug — Couch said having the ABC provide oversight was a countermeasure designed to fend off allegations that passage of the amendment would be too costly for the state.

"In 2012, when we [tried passing medical marijuana the first time], [Gov. Mike] Beebe had that interim study done that said it's going to cost so much money for the Department of Health to do this," Couch said. "It hurt us in the election. The other thing is, the Department of Health, they go out and inspect restaurants. They didn't want to inspect the physical [marijuana] plants at the dispensary. They didn't want to make sure people weren't [illegally] selling stuff. The ABC already does that with liquor stores."

Couch said that since the amendment passed, his office has received so many calls from people looking to learn how to open a dispensary or grow center that he had to tell his assistant to start taking their numbers down in a notebook instead of on individual slips of paper. When the number of calls proved too overwhelming for him to ever return, he said, Couch started giving out his email address.

Under the amendment, 60 percent of those who own dispensaries and cultivation facilities must be Arkansans who have lived in the state for seven consecutive years. The initial dispensary application fee will be $7,500 and the initial cultivation facility application fee will be $15,000.

Though some have expressed concern that the federal government will step in and stop the sale and use of medical marijuana in states where measures have passed, Couch doubts it.

"First of all, Trump supports medical marijuana, [and is] on the record saying that," he said. "Second of all, you take a state like Arkansas and North Dakota, red states, that have passed this? Other than that nut bag Tom Cotton, our senator and representatives are moderates, and this passed in every congressional district."

State Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale) worked with Couch for over two and a half years to craft Issue 6, having previously worked with him on a measure that attempted to regulate lobbyist activity in the state legislature. Woods said that while he doesn't drink or smoke and has never used marijuana, medical cannabis is a topic he's been watching in other states for years. Woods' father has multiple sclerosis, and he said several families in his district include children with serious seizure disorders.

"I believe in helping people who are hurting. I don't like watching people in pain or suffering. That bothers me," he said. "When you look at the THC and some of the edibles, the little kids that have seizures can take THC and put it in peanut butter, and the child takes it and the seizures just drop dramatically. That, to me, is powerful."

Woods said he and Couch studied the failure to pass medical marijuana in 2012, and recognized several key issues that, if dropped, would help another effort succeed.

"We came up with a list of things we thought would make people feel better about it," Woods said. "A lot of it had to do with grow-your-own. We took that out, and the polling showed a 10-point favor. It just went right up. I think people looked at it like, OK, here's something that's responsible. Here's something that somebody actually put some thought into."

Bud Roberts, the state director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, said his office has been preparing for implementation and fielding calls from those looking into how to become licensed to operate a dispensary or grow center.

"The big question I'm getting a lot of from the taxpayers is the how," Roberts said. "How do I get in on the ground floor? How do I apply for a cultivation facility — something you and I would have probably called a farm — and how do I apply for a dispensary? Those are the big questions I'm getting. But right now, it's virgin territory. We are in the drafting phase of regulations right now." Roberts said he and his staff are "taking notes" from the regulations of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, all of which have their alcoholic beverage control apparatus involved in the regulation of marijuana. The state ABC Board was to meet for its first post-election meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16, and Roberts said he was sure the topic of medical marijuana would come up.

"The board has been made aware, in previous months, by myself, of the amendment and what its terms are," Roberts said. "They are aware of the role the ABC will play, and they are also aware that my staff here has the duty, under the amendment, to provide any needed staff that the Medical Marijuana Commission might need to borrow from ABC."

Though Roberts said he hasn't been in touch with Couch to discuss the amendment, he believes the ABC will be able to meet its obligations under the law. "They put a pretty challenging deadline on ABC to come up with these regulations," Roberts said. "But I'm confident in my staff and I'm confident in myself. I think we're going to be able to do it just fine."

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