One toke over the line a literal in Texarkana: Medical pot won’t be legal on Texas side

Coming soon to Texarkana, a transformation of life-altering proportions: Medicine on one side of the street but an illegal substance on the other.

As Arkansas readies to become the first state in the Bible Belt where marijuana is legally prescribed and sold to patients, officials in Texarkana, Texas, say police there will not recognize Arkansas' pot permission slips during traffic stops and can arrest people for drug possession.

Kenny Haskin, city manager of Texarkana, Ark., said prospective marijuana growers and sellers are reaching out to him on a daily basis to ask about local rules in what will be one of the state's most unique marijuana marketplaces, where legal and illegal possession depends on a border line.

"The inquiries here -- for whatever reason -- are extremely, extremely aggressive," said Haskin, who fields about three calls a day. "They are coming in from all over the country."

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

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission on Friday began accepting applications from people seeking to grow and sell marijuana. The application period will close Sept. 18, and Arkansas will eventually license up to 32 dispensaries and five cultivation facilities in the state. The ability to legally purchase medical marijuana in Arkansas is expected sometime early next year.

Cities across Arkansas have taken different approaches to the coming new industry.

Two cities have adopted monthslong bans on pot-related businesses. At least one city has loosened its land-use rules to open the door to such businesses. And many cities have taken no action, simply letting state laws dictate pot business placement.

"There's been absolutely nothing shaking around here," El Dorado Mayor Frank Hash said.

Straddling the line

Arkansas' six neighbors prohibit marijuana use, putting border cities in some sticky situations regarding the pot law's rollout. But the problems are particularly complex in Texarkana, which shares a street, a U.S. post office, and even its name with its Texas neighbor.

"Several buildings straddle the [state] line," Haskin said. "It's very difficult to tell when you're in Texas and when you're in Arkansas."

About 30,000 people, roughly 1 percent of Arkansas' population, live in Texarkana, Ark. Another 37,000 people live in Texarkana, Texas. The combined Texarkana population is on par with Jonesboro, Arkansas' fifth-largest city.

For Arkansans to legally possess medical marijuana, the state Department of Health, which will administer medical-marijuana registry cards, will require an Arkansas-issued identification or driver's license -- complete with a name and address that match a required doctor's certification.

The Health Department says only Arkansas residents will be allowed to receive the cards. The state is currently taking applications for the medical marijuana registry cards. To apply for one, a patient must have a doctor's certification that he suffers from one of 18 medical conditions for which he can be prescribed marijuana as a treatment.

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The Health Department has reiterated that it is currently still illegal to possess marijuana in Arkansas.

Haskin says he's open to new pot businesses going in on his side of the line, but Texas authorities are not.

Shawn Vaughn, a spokesman for the Texarkana, Texas, Police Department, said officers there will not recognize Arkansas Health Department-issued cards on prescribed marijuana.

"From our perspective, it's still illegal in any shape, form or fashion in Texas," Vaughn said. "Anybody who has marijuana, medical or otherwise, in their possession ... would be subject to arrest in Texas."

The Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees highway patrols in that state, did not respond to specific questions about how its troopers plan to handle Arkansas-prescribed marijuana cases.

"Marijuana possession is illegal in Texas," the department simply said.

Under the new Arkansas law, qualifying patients and caregivers will be allowed to buy up to 2½ ounces of marijuana every 14 days.

Holding that amount in Texas would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $4,000. That's on par with Arkansas' law, which will continue to apply to people who don't have prescriptions for marijuana.

"If you're an Arkansas resident and you've been permitted to acquire medical marijuana, you probably need to keep it home," Texarkana, Texas, City Manager John Whitson said.

Avoiding Texas won't be easy in that city where the two states are "melded together," Haskin said.

The miles-long State Line Avenue bisects the city. Northbound drivers are in Arkansas, but a U-turn would put them in Texas.

Liquor stores, banned on the Texas side of town, are popular along northbound State Line Avenue.

So a medical-marijuana dispensary along State Line Avenue would create a challenge for buyers.

Texarkana officials looked into banning dispensaries along the heavily trafficked roadway but opted against it. In places, property there could accommodate dispensaries without running afoul of local zoning laws and the state-required buffer zone around churches and schools, Haskin said.

City officials are advising caution for dispensary developers.

State Line Avenue "is where we generate a lot of traffic," Haskin said. "I could see why ... State Line would be an area of interest. Taking into consideration the fact that Texas has not endorsed the medical marijuana effort, certainly that puts the potential customer in a compromising situation, I would say."

Other cities vary

The federal government -- which classifies marijuana as a drug with no medical purpose and a high potential for abuse -- still considers it illegal to grow, buy, sell, possess or ingest.

Including Arkansas, 29 states have passed laws to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as treatment for a variety of ailments. Eight states have legalized recreational use of pot.

None of the six states that border Arkansas -- Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana -- have legalized marijuana, aside from allowing cannabis oil for limited afflictions, such as severe epilepsy.

Generally, two Arkansas laws will govern where dispensaries and cultivation facilities can operate in the state.

One requires a buffer zone around schools and churches -- 3,000 feet for cultivation and 1,500 feet for dispensaries. The other law bans cities from imposing stricter placement requirements on medical-marijuana facilities than they do on traditional pharmacies.

Siloam Springs and Hot Springs, however, have imposed monthslong moratoriums on medical marijuana businesses, the strongest stance against the industry.

Fort Smith, meanwhile, opened more of its land for medical marijuana purposes. Several weeks ago the city's board voted to allow pharmacies -- and thus marijuana growers and sellers -- into areas zoned for industrial use.

"We weren't trying to make it easier or more difficult," Mayor Sandy Sanders said. "We just felt it would be more appropriate to have [the businesses] in a manufacturing area rather than a commercial zone."

Little Rock's Planning Commission adopted the state's definitions for dispensaries and cultivation facilities into its zoning laws. It also agreed to the marijuana-pharmacies provisions.

The commission's action still requires Board of Directors' approval. Zoning specific to the state's largest city allows pharmacies in commercial, industrial and office areas, with some exceptions.

El Dorado, 15 miles north of the Louisiana border, is taking a similar approach. City leaders don't plan to change zoning rules in ways that would expand or limit access to medical-marijuana facilities, the city's mayor said.

In Marion, which is roughly 11 miles from Memphis, city officials reached out to the Arkansas Municipal League for guidance on how it can keep out marijuana facilities, a staff attorney said.

Repeated attempts to reach the mayor, who works out of an insurance office in the east Arkansas city of 12,000, were unsuccessful.

Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell said Phillips County residents are working on proposals to open dispensaries and a cultivation facility in the Arkansas Delta city and its broader county. Officials are not planning to change zoning rules or impose any restrictions, he said.

"We kind of look at it as an economic development tool," Hollowell said. "We feel like -- especially if this group is successful in the cultivation piece -- it could add 50 to 60 jobs to our community. We take that serious."

Hot Springs' temporary ban sparked interest in Texarkana, Haskin said. The two cities are in the same geographic region that the Medical Marijuana Commission will use to spread out dispensary licenses.

The potential for the border city to acquire an additional dispensary because of Hot Springs' moratorium "looms large," Haskin said.

On Wednesday, Haskin said, Texarkana may become one of the first cities in the state to set local licensing fees for marijuana businesses.

The Board of Directors will consider an ordinance to require $50,000 per year for a cultivation license, $7,500 for an initial dispensary license and an $11,250 annual renewal fee for dispensaries, according to its agenda.

Metro on 07/02/2017

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