Judge rules state's licensing process for 1st medical marijuana growers unconstitutional

A file photo of marijuana is shown with a screenshot of the first page of Judge Wendell Griffen's order that placed an injunction on the permitting of Arkansas' first five cannabis growers.
A file photo of marijuana is shown with a screenshot of the first page of Judge Wendell Griffen's order that placed an injunction on the permitting of Arkansas' first five cannabis growers.

A Pulaski County circuit judge on Wednesday declared Arkansas’ licensing process for its first five medical marijuana growing facilities unconstitutional.

Judge Wendell Griffen in a Wednesday order granted a disgruntled growing permit applicant’s request for a preliminary injunction and declaratory judgement, saying "the licensing decisions and rankings rendered by the Medical Marijuana Commission must not stand, and are, hereby, declared null and void.”

[DOCUMENT: Read the judge's full order]

Griffen sided with Naturalis Health LLC on several arguments the company made in a lawsuit. Specifically, Griffen said the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division failed to verify key facts about whether some facilities were in compliance with state regulations.

Griffen said the process for awarding the licenses was compromised by potential conflicts of interest by commissioners who scored the applications, including one whose law firm represents the owners of one of facilities that was going to receive a license in non-marijuana related matters. Another commissioner is a physician who routinely refers patients to the medical practice of another doctor who is a part owner of a cultivation facility.

[DOCUMENTS: Read complaints filed + winning applications from top five growers]

In his ruling, Griffen said he "takes no joy" in blocking the state from issuing the licenses.

"The prospect that Arkansans must now endure more delay before gaining much needed access to locally grown medical marijuana should be unpleasant to anyone concerned about providing relief to people who suffer from serious illnesses," Griffen wrote.

The attorney general's office said it was reviewing Griffen's ruling and discussing it with state officials, but did not say whether it planned to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The state, however, has said that the applications scored by the commissioners were redacted and did not include any identifying information about the applicants.

Griffen said the state also failed to verify applicants' assertions that the primary entrance for their proposed facilities would be at least 3,000 feet from school, churches and daycare centers, the distance required by the medical marijuana amendment.

Naturalis Health LLC, the applicant that sued over the process, has said it wants an independent evaluator to re-score the applications for the cultivation facilities.

"We're very grateful for the judge's decision and look forward to what comes next," Jay Bequette, an attorney for Naturalis, said.

The five-member commission had already begun reviewing applications for dispensaries to sell medical marijuana with the hopes of awarding the 32 licenses for those facilities as soon as May. A spokesman for the commission said the court's order was being reviewed to determine the next steps regarding that process.

Read Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Hunter Field and The Associated Press contributed to this story.