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Prospective cultivators of medical marijuana will have to compete for state licenses on a merit-based system, rather than a lottery, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission decided Thursday.

Meeting for the third time in two weeks, the commission did not determine criteria for how it will grade the applications it is scheduled to start receiving next year. Instead, the commissioners approved alterations to the application for obtaining a cultivation license.

Created by the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment passed by voters last month, the commission must develop the rules through which Arkansans can begin applying for cultivation and dispensary licenses by June 2017. The Legislature can extend the deadline by a two-thirds vote.

The changes approved Thursday, including the motion in favor of merit selection, applied to cultivation licenses, not dispensaries.

In its previous meeting on Tuesday, the commission voted to limit the number of initial cultivation licenses it approves to five, although the the amendment allows between four and eight.

It was unclear whether the earlier vote this week included a proposal to have the initial five applicants spread across the state's five public health regions.

The commissioners continued to debate that proposal Thursday and expressed confusion about what they had voted on before agreeing to table the discussion until their next meeting Tuesday. The commission may vote to amend its decisions until its rules are finalized.

Commissioner Travis Story of Fayetteville said requiring the operators of the first five cultivation centers to be spread across the state could prevent more qualified people from applying in the more populated central and Northwest regions.

But another commissioner, Dr. Carlos Roman of Little Rock, argued that the commission was likely to receive a healthy number of qualified applicants from all over the state and that spreading them out would reduce competition.

Whether or not they are selected by region, both commissioners agreed that the proposals should be scored along some criteria, with a lottery possibly being used in the event of a tie.

"I like the merit so we get the best candidates," Roman said. "If we've got a jump ball, then maybe we go to a lottery."

The commission voted unanimously to back a merit-selection proposal. The other commissioners are Dr. Rhonda Henry-Tillman of Little Rock, James Miller of Bryant and Dr. Stephen Carroll of Benton.

While many of the requirements to apply for a cultivation license were included in the text of the amendment, the commission also approved adopting part of the process used by Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration Division to distribute liquor licenses in counties that turn from dry to wet. That process allows prospective operators 90 days to submit applications once the agency releases rules to the county.

The commissioners seemed poised to vote in favor of limiting that window to 30 days, before withdrawing the motion after a staff member explained the extensive application requirements -- and after hearing grumblings from the large crowd gathered for the meeting.

A few commissioners also touted the idea of requiring applicants to show proof of having $2 million in financial backing in order to obtain a cultivation license but tabled that discussion after dissent from Roman and further discontent from the audience.

The commission met in the board room of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration Division in Little Rock, which provides support for the commission. The commission is scheduled to meet again Tuesday morning in Little Rock.

Metro on 12/23/2016

Print Headline: Rx-marijuana growers to be merit-selected

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