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Arkansas pot commission seeks AG's help

Alcohol agency was counsel by Hunter Field | September 29, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The chairwoman of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission has requested that the state attorney general's office provide the commission with legal counsel instead of the assistance coming from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

In an August letter to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, obtained by a reporter through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request, the commission chairwoman, Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, asked Rutledge's office to provide counsel and representation in legal matters concerning the commission.

Since its inception in 2016, the commission has received legal guidance from Alcoholic Beverage Control Division attorneys, but at the past few commission meetings, the five-member commission discussed hiring its own staff.

Several members also questioned the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division staff's handling of medical marijuana cultivation license applications and raised concerns about communication between the commission and ABC staff.

Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration -- the agency that oversees both the commission and Alcoholic Beverage Control Division -- said the division will soon transition into an enforcement role, regulating medical cannabis growing facilities and dispensaries.

"Dr. Henry-Tillman's request for the Attorney General's Office to provide legal guidance allows ABC to continue providing administrative support to the MMC while also incorporating new duties," Hardin said in an email. "This is a natural step in the process that will benefit all parties."

Henry-Tillman declined to comment.

The Medical Marijuana Commission was created by Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution, which Arkansans approved in 2016. The commission's constitutional duty is to issue licenses to grow and sell medical cannabis.

The commission in July issued the first five growing licenses. The dispensary licensing process is ongoing.

Henry-Tillman in July raised questions about how Alcoholic Beverage Control Division staff determined that one application should be disqualified after it had already been scored by the commission.

Henry-Tillman said she was bothered by the lack of communication from division staff about the disqualification.

As the commission considered reinstating the disqualified application, division attorney Danielle Hoefer warned that "to do so would be in violation of your rules and also a violation of the constitution."

Henry-Tillman then offered a motion to reinstate the application, which ultimately failed by a 3-2 vote.

Hardin, the Finance Department spokesman, said it was normal procedure and within a commission chairman's discretion to seek legal guidance. The decision to go to Rutledge's office doesn't require approval from the full commission, he said.

Amanda Priest, Rutledge's communications director, said that, consistent with the office's statutory obligation, it would represent the commission. Arkansas law states that the attorney general shall be the attorney for state agencies and institutions when legal counsel is needed.

Hardin also noted that deputy attorneys general represented the commission in litigation earlier this year after several disgruntled cultivation license applicants sued it.

A lower court judge initially sided with the unsuccessful growing permit applicants, ruling that the commission's application grading process was flawed and unconstitutional, but the Arkansas Supreme Court sided with the state on appeal, tossing the circuit court ruling.

The Finance Department on Thursday finalized an agreement with a Boston-based consultant to grade the 203 applications for Arkansas' first medical marijuana dispensary licenses.

That evaluation process is expected to take about a month, and state officials project that medical cannabis will first be available for purchase in the first quarter of 2019.

Metro on 09/29/2018

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