Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Marijuana commission to be gatekeeper for dispensaries, grow centers

Posted By on Wed, Dec 7, 2016 at 5:39 PM

click to enlarge RELUCTANTLY COMPLYING: (Left to right) Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, Governor Asa Hutchinson and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam. - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • BENJAMIN HARDY
  • RELUCTANTLY COMPLYING: (Left to right) Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, Governor Asa Hutchinson and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam.

Appointments to the five-member Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission today were announced this afternoon by Governor Hutchinson and the leaders of both legislative chambers.

Hutchinson, a former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fiercely campaigned against passage of the constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana, but is now working to implement the voter-approved measure. The amendment specifies the creation of a commission to oversee licensing of dispensaries and cultivation facilities, and states that the governor must appoint one of its five members. Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) each appoint two members.

Most of the appointments seem uncontroversial, at least based on their qualifications described today (a pain doctor, a former legislative chief of staff, an oncologist and a pharmacist). One name stood out, though: Travis Story, a Fayetteville attorney best known as a warrior for conservative social causes. He's one of Gillam's picks.

TRAVIS STORY
  • TRAVIS STORY
Story has been at the forefront of the battle to undo Fayetteville's civil rights ordinance, which extended protections to LGBT individuals. He helped defeat a more modest nondiscrimination ordinance in Texarkana earlier this year. A graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Story is among those laboring to have the 10 Commandments installed on the state Capitol grounds. It should also be noted that Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) — who sponsored legislation in 2015 aimed at LGBT people — practices law at Story's firm.

Why did the Speaker of the House pick Story to license dispensaries, rather than, say, an attorney with experience in medical rules and regulations?

When asked this question, Gillam replied, "there's not a lot of folks that put forth their applications that had that specific background, had that experience. So what we looked for was — who had relative experience in the law. For me at least ... that was one of the prisms of thought that I used in arriving at the conclusion that I thought that  he would be an asset to this commission." Gillam acknowledged that his office had received many letters of interest to serve on the commission. He later told me that many of the attorneys who are most familiar with rules and regulations are already employed by the state.

Gillam said that he'd spoke to Story "at great length" and "came to the conclusion that he very much wanted to make sure this was done the right way and the responsible way, and he was very aware of the fact that the voters had spoken, that this was their will. ... He felt like this was something he could be helpful in, and after visiting with him on a couple of occasions I felt he would be a good fit for the commission."

Gillam wouldn't say whether Story himself opposed the marijuana amendment approved on Nov. 8. The governor also would not answer the question at the press conference today. Sen. Dismang admitted that both his appointees voted "no."

Under the amendment, the medical marijuana commission now must meet within 15 days. Dismang said that the public will  be notified as soon as a date is set for that meeting.

The amendment specifies that the state shall issue between 20 and 40 dispensary licenses and between four and eight licenses for cultivation facilities. The commission is authorized to "administer and regulate" license applications and renewals. That means the details of licensing will be enormously important in terms of who gets access to this nascent industry. The commission also will determine the amount of marijuana a grow facility can cultivate, "with the assistance of the Department of Health." Application fees are established by the amendment itself, though: $7,500 for a dispensary and $15,000 for a cultivation facility.

The commission's authority is over licensing in particular, it should be emphasized. Day-to-day regulation of dispensaries and grow centers generally will be handled by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

It remains to be seen how licenses will be distributed in Arkansas. The governor said today that he's inclined towards a lottery system after applicants establish their basic capacity and financial wherewithal. "A lottery system is what has worked well with ... alcohol permits across Arkansas, so we are very familiar with that. ... That would be my inclination. That is something we have experience with." Hutchinson said he felt a lottery could help prevent large, out-of-state interests from dominating.

Commissioners will serve a term of four years (although two of the initial members — will serve two-year terms, so as to stagger future appointments). The amendment says that they must "have no economic interest in a dispensary or cultivation facility." The governor pointed out today the restriction against such "entanglements with the marijuana business," as he put it. To be a commissioner, he said, "you really have to say 'we're going to be part of the regulatory process and not be part of the marijuana business' and that was very important to make sure everybody met that obligation"

Commissioners are unpaid, although they may receive a stipend of up to $85 per day when attending meetings. They may also hire staff. A small portion of sales tax revenue generated on marijuana sales — 1 percent — will go towards its funding; it can also impose fees and receive revenue from other sources.

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