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The consultant hired to score Arkansas' first medical marijuana dispensary applications expects to complete the grading process before Dec. 14.

Public Consulting Group -- the Boston-based consulting firm -- and state officials initially hoped the scoring would be complete before the end of the month, but the setback isn't expected to affect the timeline of the drug's rollout.

"We still expect a limited number of dispensaries to be open before the end of the first quarter of next year," said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission received the dispensary-grading update during a Tuesday meeting. Commissioners also approved "non-material" tweaks to the proposals submitted by two companies that were awarded medical cannabis growing licenses in July, and they authorized regulators to send official denial letters to disqualified cultivation applicants.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Bowen, the commission's legal counsel, told commissioners that he and Alcoholic Beverage Control Division Director Mary Robin Casteel were in weekly contact with Public Consulting Group. The firm, Bowen said, expects to have the applications graded sometime between Dec. 7 and Dec. 14.

"They are hopeful that they will be able to finish before that, but as of right now, they are on track to finish within that time frame," Bowen said. "If that changes, for the positive or the negative, I will inform the commission of where PCG stands as far as the completion of the review process."

The commission on its own graded more than 80 applications for growing permits earlier this year, but it decided to outsource the dispensary scoring to an outside group after the integrity and efficiency of the cultivation scoring process was called into question.

The five-member commission also faces a time crunch with two commissioners' terms ending at the close of December. They are Dr. Carlos Roman and Stephen Carroll.

It's been more than two years since Arkansans voted to legalize the growth, sale and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes through Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution. The implementation of the program has been slowed by legal and regulatory delays, frustrating patients and hopeful medical marijuana growers and sellers alike.

Still looming over the process are complaints against cultivation licensees that are being investigated by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

Commissioners on Tuesday also heard presentations from state Reps. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, and Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna. The two lawmakers have been frustrated with the way one applicant -- Carpenter Farms Medical Group of Grady -- was disqualified from consideration for a growing permit.

Carpenter Farms was one of 13 cultivation applicants disqualified after the division's staff determined the applications didn't demonstrate that each met the minimum qualification required to hold a license.

The Carpenter Farms application was unique because, unlike the other 12, it was originally notified that it had submitted an application that met the criteria for merit scoring. It was then scored by the commission, receiving the sixth-highest score. (The top five applicants received licenses.)

But the application was tossed out during a final review that discovered an error that prevented state regulators from determining the group's entire ownership.

Flowers, Murdock and the Carpenter group officials have argued that the application was treated unfairly. They contend that the division's staff acted unilaterally and lacked the authority to disqualify an applicant after it had been scored.

State officials have said that allowing Carpenter Farms to remain in consideration for a license would be unconstitutional because the group didn't demonstrate in its application that 60 percent of its ownership interest belonged to Arkansans -- a requirement outlined in Amendment 98.

The commission on Tuesday again reaffirmed the staff's decision to disqualify Carpenter Farms, and it authorized the staff to send disqualification notices to Carpenter Farms and the other 12 groups.

Bowen, the commission's attorney, said that any of the disqualified applicants that feel they were wronged could take their complaints to circuit court for judicial review.

Metro on 11/14/2018

Print Headline: Panel receives update on grading of Arkansas' marijuana-dispensary applicants

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