Governor, medical marijuana advocate differ on allotting licenses

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has a suggestion for how a newly formed commission should decide who grows and sells marijuana for medical purposes.

At a news conference this week, the governor said he prefers a lottery system to distribute state licenses. It would discourage out-of-state interests from commanding the market, he said.

But David Couch -- the Little Rock lawyer who sponsored a voter-approved amendment to legalize marijuana use for some medical purposes -- has a different idea.

A merit system -- where licenses are distributed on the basis of points earned and geographic diversity -- would serve the state better by rewarding high-quality applications, Couch said.

[INTERACTIVE MAP: Click here for a look at how laws related to marijuana have evolved over the past two decades.]

When the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission meets for the first time on Monday, commissioners -- appointed by the governor and legislative leaders -- must begin to weigh the pros and cons of which path to follow.

They will be presented with the governor's plan.

Documents released under the state Freedom of Information Act show the Department of Finance and Administration is still working on draft rules to implement a lottery system for dispensaries.

However, the draft cultivation-facility rules have a choice: "Merit or Lottery Selection Similar to Dispensaries."

"We drafted those rules so that they have a starting place," said Jake Bleed, a spokesman for the department. "They may want to take a different direction."

It's ultimately up to the commission to decide what rules are promulgated, subject to a process that includes legislative review, he said.

Couch, the amendment sponsor, said he favors merit selection to determine the best owners of dispensaries and growing facilities.

"The application, I would think, would be scored, weighted somehow by professionals and then maybe give some consideration for diversity, sex, race. Veterans should get a point or something like that. Then you've got to have geographic diversity," he said.

"If you have facilities scored almost identically, you might have a lottery or something like that."

Hutchinson said his preferred lottery system would be similar to the alcohol-permit process. It would involve setting up minimum qualifications, and then qualifying applicants would be picked randomly.

"I think that is something we have experience with. I think it's fair," he said. "It would avoid having huge businesses come in and dominate."

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment permits from four to eight cultivation facilities and from 20 to 40 dispensaries.

New Mexico and Maine select dispensaries on the basis of the merits of their applications, while Arizona selects dispensaries on the basis of their proximity to patients with a lottery in case of a tie, according to a review of state regulations.

Couch has identified those three states as having the most similar laws to Arkansas.

Under the finance department's unfinished draft rules, cultivation facilities would pay a $15,000 application fee while dispensaries would pay a $7,500 fee. Those are the maximum allowed under the amendment text.

The draft rules also state that "No individual shall have interest in more than (1) cultivation facility and one (1) dispensary" -- reinforcing a similar provision in the amendment text.

If the commission decides to adopt the merit option in the finance department's draft regulations, commission members would assess applicants on their experience, operation plan and financial stability.

The highest-scoring applications would receive licenses.

In response to a question at a news conference about whether the Medical Marijuana Commission would be independent, Hutchinson said: "Once we make the appointments, then [commissioners] are to act consistent with their responsibility under the amendment."

A Section on 12/10/2016