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Medical cannabis delays vexing to patients in state

By Hunter Field

This article was originally published July 12, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. Updated July 12, 2018 at 2:51 p.m.

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Josh Nicholson wants to take his wife to the movies again, but for that, he needs cannabis.

Chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder make a two-hour film unbearable for Nicholson, and opioids and other drugs don't provide the same relief as medical-grade marijuana.

The 38-year-old moved to Arkansas from Illinois for his wife's work in 2017. Here, he expected to continue a treatment regimen that included cannabis, but shortly after he arrived, the process for allowing medical use of the drug got trapped in the slow-turning gears of government bureaucracy.

Nicholson, like 5,546 other qualified patients in Arkansas, has been vexed by the regulatory and court fights holding his medicine hostage.

"It's very discouraging," Nicholson said. "I've gotten the doctor's certification, but I can't obtain it legally. What's the purpose of it being legal if I don't have access to my medicine?"

Patients across the state now face the same question many asked themselves before Arkansans voted to legalize the controversial drug in 2016: Should they go without their medicine or obtain marijuana illegally? More and more are turning to the black market, said Melissa Fults, a longtime patient advocate.

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"They have a choice: They can suffer and die or they can break the law," Fults said. "That's seriously what it comes down to."

Many patients expected the first medical-marijuana dispensaries to open within a year of voters approving Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution, which legalized the drug.

But state government's process for implementing its medical-marijuana program has been plagued with delays from the outset, and earlier this year, the program spent nearly four months in regulatory purgatory after a lawsuit prevented the state from moving forward with the process to license the first cannabis growers and sellers.

That lawsuit -- filed by one of the companies that failed to win a cultivation permit -- was officially dismissed Tuesday, freeing the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission to issue the first growing licenses. But even the earliest projections don't have the drug available until mid-2019.

And with the threat of more legal challenges, no clear end is in sight.

Roger Halpin, a 60-year-old patient from Mulberry, has learned not to get his hopes up. The Army veteran suffers from neuropathy in both legs, a herniated disc in his back, post-traumatic stress disorder and arthritis.

"I've totally lost trust in the state," he said. "Lies and lies and lies."

Halpin said he sleeps better and experiences far less pain when using medical cannabis. Without it, his activity is limited, and he can't do some activities he loves, like hiking, he said.

"I'd even just like to walk through the grocery store without having to get a [motorized] cart," Halpin said.

Halpin -- Nicholson, too -- have decided to wait until medical marijuana is legally available, but other patients interviewed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette won't wait any longer.

One 56-year-old Little Rock woman, who asked not to be quoted by name so she could discuss her drug use candidly, purchases marijuana illegally each week to treat her glaucoma and dystonia -- a disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions and cramps.

She worries about the quality of the drugs she purchases, whether they're the right strain at a fair price. She worries that a police officer will knock on her door one day and take away her freedom and monthly disability checks.

But she's tired of waiting, and the risk is worth taking.

"Because of how much better I feel," she said. "It lightens the pain and puts me in a mood to do my stretches."

LaRee Williams Treece, 57, was approved for a patient card because she has fibromyalgia, and other drugs cause her to have an allergic reaction. For Treece and many others in the tight-knit patient community, the delays started back in 2016 with the fight that played out between supporters of cannabis legalization.

Treece and Fults backed a competing medical marijuana proposal in 2016 that would have included less government regulation and a provision that would allow patients to grow their own cannabis. That measure -- known as Issue 7 -- was tossed off the ballot under a court challenge shortly before election day.

They criticize Issue 6, which became Amendment 98, for being more focused on benefiting businesses than helping patients.

Little Rock attorney David Couch, the author of Issue 6, said Issue 7 was flawed in three main ways. It polled below 50 percent; it was an initiated act, which could have been "substantially altered" by the General Assembly; and he said the system for growing licenses, which would've required nonprofit owners, would've resulted in higher patient costs because the growing operations would have been contracted out to third-party, for-profit companies.

Couch agreed that the state's rollout of Amendment 98 has lost its patient focus.

"It's been all about business so far, and that's not what it should've been about," he said. Couch has been pushing for the commission to scrap its merit-based process for issuing growing and selling permits and adopting a lottery-style system that's similar to liquor permitting.

"Let's get the medicine out there," he said. "The patients have been forgotten long enough."

Treece, Fults and other patients also pointed to the makeup of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, which includes two doctors, a pharmacist, a lobbyist and a consultant -- some of whom opposed the legalization of medical marijuana. The commission members are appointed by the heads of the executive and legislative branches.

The panel, which is in charge of issuing cultivation and dispensary licenses, should've included at least one patient or patient advocate, Fults said.

"The people who were appointed completely failed their jobs," said Fults, who is running as a Democrat for state Senate. "I don't blame them because when you appoint someone with no knowledge about what they should be doing how can they not fail?

"Patients have been forgotten from the very get-go."

Nicholson hopes he and his wife can begin going to the theater and comedy clubs again this year, but that seems unlikely even by industry insiders' most optimistic projections of when medical cannabis will be available for purchase.

Nicholson -- once he can access his medicine again -- is excited to play his guitar for more than a few minutes at a time. Until then, he'll manage as best he can.

"I don't have a choice; I have to make it," he said. "I just want my life back."

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DanielR says... July 12, 2018 at 7:48 a.m.

Let me get my violin out! You know it's those wanting to use it for recreation are the ones screaming. Who are you trying to B.S.?

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merlin749 says... July 12, 2018 at 7:53 a.m.

More media BS, look at it calling marijuana medicine. It's not a medicine, it might be called a a "supplement" more accurately. The FDA investigates and approves medicines.

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GeneralMac says... July 12, 2018 at 8:03 a.m.

......." they can suffer and DIE or they can break the law"....

Melissa Fults must have majored in drama

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JA40 says... July 12, 2018 at 8:06 a.m.

It's amazing that the people of Arkansas passed amendment 98 that legalized cannabis, but rapport and his cast of idiots don't want it, so they will drag the process out as long as possible. Doesn't matter who is doing the screaming, it's legal.

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GeneralMac says... July 12, 2018 at 8:09 a.m.

Since " the cannabis" is such a miracle that a man with arthritis , a herniated disc, neuropathy in both legs but expects to go back to hiking once he takes " the cannabis".

That should mean that anyone who is now on Disability SS should be able to get off disability and go back to work.

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GeneralMac says... July 12, 2018 at 8:13 a.m.

Daniel R's first post of the day nailed it.

That is why you either should keep marijuana illegal or legalize it completely.
When the biggest advocates of medical marijuana are guys with pony tails and tattoos , you know they don't want it available for just for the suffering.

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doggod says... July 12, 2018 at 8:19 a.m.

Merlin749. Unfortunately, the FDA has been prevented from studying it properly because it is still a Schedule I drug and, therefore, cannabis studies are not eligible for funding. However, it has been studied in other parts of the world. Anyone who claims it is not medicine needs to tell that to the hundreds of families whose children no longer have a hundred seizures a day. Look, if you don't like it, don't use it. But don't deny others the right. You believe in personal freedom, right?

As for recreational use, aren't you tired of splitting families apart, stripping citizens of their rights, and building more prisons for a drug that is far less harmful than alcohol? Imagine what we could do with all the tax money in a dirt-poor state like Arkansas.

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GeneralMac says... July 12, 2018 at 8:31 a.m.

doggod...... do you really think the thugs carrying a gun and selling marijuana are now going to apply at Walmart for a REAL job once marijuana is legal ?

They will graduate to selling cocaine and meth.

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JMort69 says... July 12, 2018 at 8:44 a.m.

To all of you hypocrites who booze it up daily and take handsful of pills, you have no clue. I am a 66 year old woman, with no tatoos, and chronic stomach disorders that the doctors can do nothing further for. I make 6 figures in a very detail-oriented business, care for my elderly mother, 2 houses and seven acres. What do you all do with your time besides post inane rants? The ONLY way I can function is with MM. I tried all the mind-altering drugs prescribed by pill pusher doctors, and they only made it worse. I guess you would also demean the children whose seizures are helped by this medicine. You are making sweeping judgments. Exactly who appointed you the arbiter of these matters? I am not telling you what type of medical help you can or cannot get, what makes you think you have the right to tell me? Perhaps you are lucky enough not to have any health issues. If so, good for you. But, when you do, and you will, I hope some uneducated, closed-minded rube doesn't try to dictate to you what you can and can't use for relief. Over half of the states have now approved MM, so you are part of a losing, dying, outdated minority. When ill health attacks you, I hope you remember your uncaring blatherings about this issue. BTW, thank you to Mr. Field for FINALLY actually talking to some of us and using the proper terms for this issue.

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Toenails says... July 12, 2018 at 8:53 a.m.

I am a christian. I have neither a tattoo nor a ponytail, but i do have compassion for the suffering. I supported medical marijuana. I support legalization for all purposes. Anyone who would put another human in a cage for marijuana is either ignorant, evil, or both.

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