Medical marijuana panel backs rule changes

Applications’ reactivation sought for last 2 dispensary licenses

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission has advanced rule changes that would allow the state to issue its two remaining dispensary licenses, possibly in January.

Spokesman Scott Hardin said the rule changes advanced Thursday would allow the commission to issue licenses to companies that initially applied in 2017 and had applications that remained active until earlier this year, when they expired.

"Due to this, the rule change is required to reactivate the applications," Hardin said in an email. "The rule change will allow the licenses to be issued to the 'next in line' in both Zone 6 and Zone 8 based on previous scoring."

Hardin said the rule changes must now be reviewed by the Legislative Council and approved by the governor's office.

"Additionally, a public comment period is required," he said in an email. "This process normally takes approximately three months to complete all required steps. As a result, we anticipate the two remaining licenses (one in Zone 6, one in Zone 8) will be issued in early January if the rules are successfully adopted."

At their meeting July 21, commissioners noted that there were few dispensaries in the southwestern portion of the state relative to the number of patients in the region.

Zone 6 covers Scott, Polk, Montgomery, Garland, Perry, Saline, Hot Spring and Grant counties. Green Remedies Group, which is next in line for Zone 6, proposes to put a dispensary in Garland County, outside any city limits.

Zone 8 covers Howard, Sevier, Little River, Hempstead, Miller, Nevada, Lafayette, Columbia, Union, Ouachita, Calhoun, Clark and Dallas counties. The next in line for Zone 8 is T&C Management, which plans to put a dispensary in Texarkana in Miller County.

The Medical Marijuana Commission decided in August to use a reserve list to award the two unassigned dispensary licenses and to use a lottery system in the future to make these decisions.

The commission was presented with three options for issuing the two licenses, and it also needed to consider a way to issue licenses in the future if one is taken away or revoked for any reason.

The goal was to avoid being in the same position again, from using a process in which the commission or its designee sorts through applicants and chooses a winner.

The three options were to use:

• The existing system of scoring applicants and choosing a winner.

• The reserve list in Zone 6 and Zone 8 to fill the two remaining slots and use the lottery system for future decisions.

• The lottery system for the two available licenses and again in the future.

The board members decided that the second option was the best way to move forward.

"The Commissioners are considering a separate rule change that would allow for a lottery approach (a blind draw similar to the system utilized for retail liquor applicants) in the scenario a dispensary or cultivator license is revoked," Hardin said. "However, that rule change will not be formally considered until the next meeting of the Commission."

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.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of medical marijuana in Arkansas at]

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 it 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. That led to the discussion of how to award the final two licenses.