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Arkansas lawmaker asks for outside look at licensing state's first medical-marijuana growers

by Hunter Field | March 16, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A state lawmaker has asked regulators to reset the process for licensing Arkansas' first medical-marijuana growers by enlisting an out-of-state consultant to review applications.

Rep. Scott Baltz, D-Pocahontas, made the request in a Wednesday letter to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, Medical Marijuana Commission members and Gov. Asa Hutchinson after a circuit judge stopped the commission from awarding the first five cannabis cultivation permits Wednesday evening.

Baltz, in an interview Thursday, said he felt a review was needed because of a number of discrepancies in the license application process. Hiring an independent firm from outside Arkansas to judge hopeful growers' proposals would ensure a "credible and impartial" process, he said.

"I don't have a dog in this fight," Baltz said. "But I've been looking at this thing, and it looks like the state is going to get a black eye. We just have to control how black it gets."

The finance department didn't have an official response for Baltz on Thursday, but a spokesman said agency officials planned to respond today.

The licensing process is at a standstill after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Wednesday granted a disgruntled applicant's request for a temporary restraining order. A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled today.

Hutchinson, speaking to the media Thursday, gave his thoughts on the recent challenges to the commission's announcement of the first five future marijuana-growing licensees. The governor said he expects that the five applicants scored highest by the commission will ultimately receive pot growing permits. Those applicants are Natural State Medicinals Cultivation, Bolt Team LLC, Natural State Wellness Enterprises, Osage Creek Cultivation and Delta Medical Cannabis Co.

"Nothing is perfect, but I expect in the end that they will be approved," the Republican governor said. "I think the commission, if there's any difficulty in the applications or new information, they have an opportunity to re-evaluate before the licenses are actually issued. So if something comes to light, that's fine. I haven't seen anything, though, that would really undermine the whole licensing process that they're undergoing."

Since announcing the preliminary winners of the lucrative growing permits, the commission has been sued twice and received numerous complaints from applicants who felt that their applications received unfair treatment.

[DOCUMENT: Read the letters of protest + applications from the five firms selected to open growing centers]

Two commissioners have been accused of bias, and Baltz and others have raised questions about possible tax infractions among future pot-growing company stakeholders.

Other states where medical marijuana has been legalized experienced similar floods of legal challenges as they started their cannabis programs.

Patient advocates are upset that people eligible to receive prescriptions for medical marijuana will experience further delays gaining access to the drug. Arkansans voted for a constitutional amendment in 2016 to legalize medical marijuana.

"I hate it with a passion that we have to delay this to control these discrepancies," Baltz said. "I hate it for the folks that need [medical marijuana], and I hate it for the folks that spent a lot of money on this."

Much of the scoring criticism has been heaped on the five-member Medical Marijuana Commission, which was formed by Amendment 98 to develop the process for licensing cultivation facilities and dispensaries.

The commission elected to evaluate the applications (95 for growing cannabis and 227 for selling it) themselves rather than hire a third party, as many industry insiders and Hutchinson suggested.

Hutchinson, who opposed the ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana, said Thursday that he would have preferred the commission to have adopted a system like the one the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division has for liquor permits. Applicants for those licenses must meet a certain criteria before being entered into a lottery for a set number of licenses that are based on population.

"Now, they didn't adopt that; that shows their independence," Hutchinson said. "The commission has the responsibility to determine their own system, and they determined a different way to do it. And I respect them for that."

A Section on 03/16/2018

Print Headline: Outside look at pot files favored; Fairness is goal, legislator states


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