The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission decided Thursday to use a reserve list to award two remaining unassigned dispensary licenses and then use a lottery system to make these decisions in the future.
The commission was presented with three options for issuing the remaining two dispensary licenses while also needing to consider a way to issue licenses in the future if one is taken away or revoked for any reason. The goal was to not be in the same position again, should a license need to be issued to another company, of using a process in which the commission (or its designee) sorts through applicants and chooses a winner.
The three options were to either use the existing system; use the reserve list in Zone 6 and Zone 8 to fill the two remaining slots and use the lottery system for future decisions; or use the lottery system to choose who gets the last two licenses and again in the future.
The commission quickly agreed that using the existing system was the worst of the options.
"I don't like that one at all," commissioner Kevin Russell said with a laugh.
The board members decided after some discussion that the second option was the best way to move forward.
"I am not a fan of chance," chairman James Miller said at the meeting. "With option three, we lose the ability to have any input in the decision. There was a reason why we chose the merit system."
More finalized details about the selected option will be available at the next meeting.
In 2016, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 98, the constitutional change legalizing cannabis for medical use. The state's first dispensaries opened in May 2019, after delays resulting from regulatory snags and court challenges.
The amendment allows the commission to issue up to 40 dispensary licenses. The commission initially issued 32 dispensary licenses spread evenly across eight geographic zones in January 2019 and has granted six more since then.
The commission in December voted unanimously to issue the 38th license, then in February declined to issue the remaining two on the basis that the applications had expired before the meeting.
Since then, three commissioners have been replaced by two new members and one reappointment, Miller.
At their meeting July 21, commissioners noted that there were fewer dispensaries in the southwestern portion of the state relative to the number of patients in the region.
After their discussion, the commissioners voted to issue the two remaining licenses, which will go to businesses in Zone 6 and Zone 8. Zone 6 covers Scott, Polk, Montgomery, Garland, Perry, Saline, Hot Spring and Grant counties; Zone 8 covers Howard, Sevier, Little River, Hempstead, Miller, Nevada, Lafayette, Columbia, Union, Ouachita, Calhoun, Clark and Dallas counties.
As of July 18, there were 36 operational dispensaries in Arkansas, according to an industry update provided by state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin. All of the dispensary licenses have been awarded based on a merit scoring system.
Of those businesses, three are in Zone 6 and four are in Zone 8. Two of the dispensaries in Zone 6 are in Hot Springs and the other is in Alexander, which is near the Pulaski County line. In Zone 8, the dispensaries are in Arkadelphia, Texarkana and El Dorado.
Zone 3, which covers Northeast Arkansas, also has four dispensaries, as does Zone 4, which is directly north of Zone 6. Zone 7, which covers Southeast Arkansas, has five, as does Northwest Arkansas' Zone 1.
Zone 5, which includes four Central Arkansas counties, has six. Five of those are in Pulaski County.
Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Herzog of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.