The highest-scoring bids to become the first legal growers of medical marijuana in Arkansas will be announced Feb. 27, the state's Medical Marijuana Commission decided Friday.
The five members of the commission will receive 95 applications for one of the state's five cultivator licenses in two weeks, they were told at the beginning of their Friday meeting.
With that starting point set, the commissioners voted to give themselves a Feb. 20 deadline to finish reviewing and scoring the applications. Then, in a public meeting the next week, the five winning bids will be announced.
In addition to the 95 applications to grow marijuana, the commission received 227 applications in October to open one of 32 dispensaries where the drug will be sold to qualifying patients.
Scoring that bundle of applications will take longer, and the winners are not likely to be announced until late April, said Joel DiPippa, a state attorney who advises the commission.
If the commission stays on that schedule, DiPippa said the licenses for medical pot businesses could be handed out by the end of the fiscal year in June, more than a year and a half after Arkansans voted to legalize medical marijuana.
The state has yet to set a firm date for when the drug will be available for sale.
DiPippa told the commissioners that Department of Finance and Administration staff members -- who are going through the process of redacting personal information from the applications, before turning them over to the commission -- w̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ recommended that commissioners* finish the scoring in late January or early February.
Several commissioners, however, doubted that they could comply with that timeline with the holidays approaching and day jobs to work.
Finishing their review by the first of February would require each commissioner to review and score at least two applications -- each containing 25 pages, plus lengthy add-ons -- each day.
"I'm not going to BS [applicants] about reading these things the right way and being fair about it," said one commissioner, Dr. J. Carlos Roman.
Only one commissioner, James Miller, said he felt that he could "for sure" finish the work by late January.
At first, Roman proposed setting a deadline near the end of February. He and the other commissioners settled on Feb. 20, a Tuesday that follows the Feb. 19 state holiday of George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day.
Still, Roman said it felt like a crunch, as he and DiPippa recalled scrambling to meet college deadlines.
"Nothing like pressure," Roman said.
Once the highest-scoring applicants are announced, they will have a week to pay their $100,000 license fees. If any winning bids drop out at that point, the licenses will be awarded to the next-highest bidders, DiPippa said.
Also at their February meeting, the commissioners said they will take up matters relating to the licenses for transporting the marijuana between the cultivators and distributors.
The commissioners decided against scheduling a meeting between when they receive the applications and when they will announce the winning bids. At some point in the middle, DiPippa said, agency staff members will finish the separate process of redacting the cultivators' applications to be released to the public.
That could raise concerns of having an unfair bidding process, DiPippa and some of the commissioners said.
The redacted applications given to the commissioners will be stripped of identifying information on the people and groups behind the bids, to keep the scoring fair. Under state open records laws, however, the applications released to the public will have the names of the applicants.
DiPippa said he was reviewing whether releasing the applications to the public before having them go to the commissioners completing their scoring would be "problematic" with the state Freedom of Information Act.
*CORRECTION: Staff members of the state Department of Finance and Administration recommended that the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission finish scoring applications for cultivators in late January or early February. The commission then set a deadline of Feb. 20 for that task. A previous version of this article was unclear about who would score the applications.
Metro on 12/02/2017