Growers plan to harvest Arkansas' first legally grown medical marijuana next week, and the first batch of drugs is expected to hit retail shelves by May 12 — 2½ years after voters approved its legalization.
Licensed cannabis cultivators and sellers gave the most detailed timeline to date of the program's rollout in interviews with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this week.
Robert Lercher, a customer relations official with Bold Team, said the growing company will harvest its first marijuana plants Tuesday or Wednesday.
The plants must then be dried, cured, trimmed and packaged before being sent to dispensaries during the second week of May, Lercher said.
By that time, state regulators and industry officials expect a handful of dispensaries -- estimated between two and five -- to be ready to open to qualified patients and caregivers.
Doctors Orders RX -- a Hot Springs dispensary -- is in the final stages of regulatory approval. It's the first and only dispensary that the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Enforcement agency has inspected. The agency expects to make a final determination on the dispensary's approval in the next two weeks.
Several other dispensary managers expect to request state inspections in the coming weeks, as well. Arkansas eventually will have 32 dispensaries around the state.
"Dispensaries across the state are in varying stages of development," said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for Alcoholic Beverage Control. "There are a few that will be ready for final inspection over the next month to two months, while others are working to break ground. ... Enforcement agents are prepared to inspect each facility and remain available to each dispensary to answer any questions throughout the process."
Patients eagerly await the opening of the first dispensary after more than two years of waiting. Arkansans voted to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, approving Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution.
A variety of legal and bureaucratic hurdles have bogged down the implementation of the controversial drug, but industry leaders assured that its debut is in sight.
Arkansas patients' frustrations were exacerbated by the fast implementation of medical marijuana in neighboring Oklahoma. Voters there legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes last summer, and it was available for purchase before Christmas.
State and business officials for months have projected that the first medical cannabis would be available this month, but the growing process has taken longer than expected.
Dispensaries and growers have also been slower to complete construction of their facilities and begin operations.
In addition to Bold Team, two of the other four licensed cultivators have begun operations. The final two are still constructing grow houses.
Lercher noted that there's still uncertainty moving forward but that his company will have a much better grasp of the process after the first harvest.
"This process is new to us," he said, noting that his firm has relied on consultations with cannabis experts from other states. "We're basically just going off other people's projections."
Lercher said Bold Team expects to produce about 200 pounds of medical marijuana from its first harvest, again noting that's based on consultants' estimates.
With more than 10,000 registered patients and more expected in the coming weeks, Lercher said that amount of usable cannabis won't be enough to adequately serve the state's patient population beyond two weeks if all people eligible purchase the maximum amount allowed under Arkansas law.
"But who knows how many people are going to get it and if they're going to get their full allotment?" Lercher said.
Registered patients may purchase up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana every two weeks. A person qualifies for a patient card if he's certified by a doctor and suffers from one of 18 qualifying conditions.
It's unknown when the other two growing companies in operation -- Osage Creek Cultivation of Berryville and Natural State Medicinals Cultivation of White Hall -- will complete their first harvest, and officials from those companies have declined interview requests.
Final approval for Doctors Orders RX has been complicated by a lawsuit and an administrative complaint against the company, alleging that the company's close family ties to two other dispensaries runs afoul of state rules prohibiting involvement in more than one dispensary.
Green Springs Medical, another Hot Springs dispensary, also hopes to open for business before Bold Team distributes the first batch of medical marijuana, said CEO Dragan Vicentic.
Vicentic said he expects a rush of patients. He's been fielding about 25 calls each day from patients wanting to know when the dispensary hopes to open.
"We're going to hit the ground running as soon as [Alcoholic Beverage Control] approves our facility," he said.
CORRECTION: Bold Team, a cultivator of medical marijuana in Arkansas, expects to produce about 200 pounds of medical marijuana from its first harvest, based on consultants' estimates. Because of incorrect information from Bold Team, an earlier version of this story misstated the amount of cannabis the first harvest might yield.
A Section on 04/18/2019