Medical marijuana should hit Arkansas shelves for the first time next month, industry officials said, but they're less sure about how widespread the drug's availability will be.
State regulators this week completed final inspections at two more growing facilities, meaning they are cleared to begin growing marijuana. The first of five cultivators was cleared to begin growing plants in January.
The first of the state's 32 dispensaries are expected to begin opening next month, and one seller has already requested an Alcoholic Beverage Control Enforcement Division inspection.
What's less clear is how much product will be available and how many retailers will be open in April.
Alex Gray, an attorney for the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association, expects a handful of dispensaries -- fewer than 10 -- to open next month, but some patients may have hourslong drives to reach a dispensary.
"I anticipate it will be possible for patients to obtain their medicine by mid-April," Gray said. "However, there is no guarantee that it will be convenient. You could have certain zones where there are no dispensaries up and running."
The medical-marijuana program's debut next month would mark the end of legal and regulatory delays that have slowed the program's implementation since Arkansans voted in 2016 to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes.
[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of medical marijuana in Arkansas]
Amendment 98 to the constitution made Arkansas one of 33 states where medical cannabis is legal. The amendment permits patients and eligible caregivers to purchase and possess small quantities of the drug if a patient is certified by a physician to suffer from one of 18 qualifying conditions.
As of March 7, the state Health Department had approved 7,726 of the registry ID cards required to buy cannabis in Arkansas.
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said it's unlikely that the first medical-marijuana dispensary will be able to service the entire patient population immediately because of several factors, including limited product and obstacles to how many patients a dispensary can process in a day simply from time constraints.
He said he expects llengthy waits when the first dispensary opens its doors.
Doctors Orders RX, a Hot Springs dispensary, has already requested an inspection from state regulators, according to documents obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Others are expected soon, Hardin said.
"We are in contact with several dispensaries," Hardin said in an email. "Based on these conversations, we anticipate a limited number of dispensaries (less than five) will be inspected in April. If the companies pass inspection, they may then open their doors for business. We aren't necessarily confident the product will be available for purchase next month.
"Based on the information currently available to us, April remains our best estimate. The industry should really flourish as we enter late spring and summer."
Osage Creek Cultivation of Berryville and Natural State Medicinals Cultivation of White Hall were both approved this week to begin growing cannabis.
They join Bold Team of Cotton Plant as the only cultivation facilities in operation. Bold Team began growing in January, and company officials have consistently said the first product would be available next month. A spokesman didn't return a phone call requesting comment on Friday.
The two remaining licensed cultivators -- Natural State Wellness Enterprises and Delta Medical Cannabis Co., both of Newport -- expect to complete construction of their facilities later this year.
A Natural State Wellness Enterprises spokesman said the company expects to begin operations in June or sooner. A spokesman for Delta Medical Cannabis said the company should begin cultivating in late summer or early fall, noting that consistent rains have slowed construction progress.
Dispensaries will be spread across eight regional zones with each zone containing four stores.
A Section on 03/16/2019