HOT SPRINGS — A line of buyers wrapped around three sides of Arkansas’ first medical-marijuana dispensary 30 minutes before it opened early Saturday for its first full day of business.
A cold drizzle couldn’t keep the patients away from Doctor’s Orders RX. After waiting 2½ years for the state’s first dispensary to open, the registered patients had mixed moods.
There was plenty of excitement, some impatience. Brief arguments broke out over who should be the first in the door. Tempers flared as dispensary officials informed the crowd that the shop wouldn’t open at 8 a.m. as officials had said Friday.
But once the doors opened shortly after 9 a.m., patients began to celebrate. One of the first to legally purchase cannabis (he declined to give his name) walked out of the dispensary with a huge smile and then let out a celebratory yell coupled with an exaggerated fist pump.
Another patient, Gerard Wimer, 38, of Jacksonville, arrived at the Hot Springs dispensary at 10:30 p.m. Friday. He slept in his car and waited at the front of the line with his mother. He uses cannabis to treat his arthritis.
Wimer had a positive first experience in the dispensary, he said, adding that it was slightly confusing.
“It’s better than buying it off the street,” he said.
While Saturday was the first full day of medical-cannabis sales in Arkansas, Doctor’s Orders RX, which sits along U.S. 270 between Malvern and Hot Springs, sold to its first patient on Friday afternoon. That purchase marked the first legal marijuana sale in Arkansas since the drug was prohibited here in 1923.
Arkansas is the 33rd state to implement a medical-marijuana program. Voters legalized the drug for medical use by approving Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution in November 2016. However, there were legal and regulatory delays in getting the program off the ground.Gallery: Medical Marijuana on Sale
A second dispensary, Green Springs Medical, plans to open Monday in Hot Springs. The state has licensed 32 dispensaries, but only Green Springs and Doctor’s Orders RX have passed final inspections and been cleared to open. (The state misidentified the latter as Doctors Orders RX.)
Patients suffering from at least one of 18 qualifying conditions could choose from five strains of the drug on Saturday at $52.50 for 3.5 grams (an eighth of an ounce) or $420 an ounce, plus taxes.
The menu options were Bold Team Mimosa, Bold Team Blue Dream, Bold Team Purple Badlands, Bold Team Gunslinger and Bold Team Cookies & Chem. Bold Team is the first of five state-licensed growers to harvest and distribute cannabis to dispensaries.
Blue Dream, for example, is a hybrid strain of cannabis composed of 26% of the chemical compound tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC.
Blue Dream is described on Doctor’s Orders’ menu as: “Uplifting and energizing sativa dominant. Fruity and sweet aroma. Good for stress, depression, chronic pain, headaches, fatigue.”
Bailey Arnold, 30, of Tontitown drove to Hot Springs on Friday, and she was the first patient to check out Saturday. She purchased a half ounce of Blue Dream and quarter-ounce portions of Gunslinger and Cookies & Chem.
Arnold’s ounce of cannabis cost $420, but she paid $470.40 after sales tax and a special 4% privilege tax imposed by the state on medical marijuana.
Doctor’s Orders, for now, allows only cash transactions. Financial institutions are reluctant to handle transactions related to marijuana because the drug remains illegal under federal law. Last week, attorneys general from 33 states — including Arkansas — signed a letter asking Congress to approve a bill that would allow legal marijuana business and financial institutions to work together.
Arnold uses cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, back pain and anxiety. She was recently released from the hospital after receiving treatment for kidney stones.
An ounce, she said, should last her until sometime in June. She plans to smoke it.
“It helps very much,” she said, noting that she’d used marijuana in other states where it’s already legal.
Hiccups with the state-mandated patient-tracking software delayed the opening of Doctor’s Orders, and it also slowed the rate at which it could process new patients. The software keeps track of when patients purchase marijuana to ensure no one buys more than they are legally allowed. The limit is 2.5 ounces every two weeks. The software was tested on one patient Friday afternoon.
The software glitches continued Saturday and delayed the pace for filling orders.
But by Saturday evening, a spokesman estimated that Doctor’s Orders had served about 200 patients, exceeding morning expectations. The dispensary planned to stay open until 10 p.m. to continue seeing patients who had waited in line. It initially had planned to close at 7 p.m. It said Saturday it planned to reopen at noon today.
The dispensary also handed out about 500 burritos to people waiting in line in Saturday’s drizzle.
Jacob Hall, 34, of North Little Rock took his place near the end of the line about 7:45 a.m. Saturday. He acknowledged that he may not have a chance to enter the dispensary before it closed, but he was still willing to spend the day waiting in the rain.
“We’ve been waiting for two years, more than two years,” said Hall, who suffers from chronic pain. “I don’t want to miss this chance.”
Doctor’s Orders RX is in a nondescript, windowless building that once was a barbecue restaurant. There are no logos with marijuana leaves to make it stand out, simply a plain white sign that reads: “Doctor’s Orders” followed by a phone number.
To enter, patrons must have a medical-marijuana registry ID card issued by the state Health Department. Patients can obtain the cards if they have written certification from a doctor saying that they suffer from a qualifying condition. The cards cost $50 and are good for a year.
In a statement late Friday, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission chairman, Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, applauded the opening of Doctor’s Orders. The commission chose which cultivators and dispensaries would received the limited number of licenses.
“We are pleased to see medical marijuana dispensaries open, and are glad that patients will be able to access the appropriate cannabis product and possible relief they have patiently been awaiting since the passage of Amendment 98,” Henry-Tillman said.
Industry leaders expect prices to remain high and supply low for the next few weeks. But as more marijuana is harvested, prices should decrease some, and the drug should be available across the state.
Wimer said he’s eager to visit other dispensaries once they open. On Saturday, he opted to purchase strains with the highest amount of THC. Currently, only dry flower is available.
He said he plans to smoke it and possibly make a wax.
“I’m ready to go home and try my medicine,” he said, with a wry smile and lift of his eyebrows.