John Stacks, the chairman and CEO of a small Arkansas bank, last year voted against the amendment that allowed the sale of medical marijuana in Arkansas. But Stacks attributes his opposition to a "lack of knowledge" of the benefits of cannabis, and announced this week that his bank, HomeBank of Arkansas, will handle accounts from medical marijuana growers and sellers.
HomeBank, with branches in Little Rock, Portland (Ashley County), Greenbrier, Damascus and Marshall, will partner with third-party private banking company Safe Harbor, which Stacks said will provide compliance with complicated federal laws, such as the Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money-laundering laws, by vetting growers and sellers and keeping a transparent accounting of cash transactions. "Safe Harbor has been doing this as long as we know of," Stacks said. By using Safe Harbor, the bank can "file the proper reports with the proper authorities and you take all that cash" away from the growers and sellers. "It hopefully prevents theft and crime."
Stacks said many people in the small communities where HomeBank operates "are very supportive and we're starting to see a lot more people" support the idea of medical marijuana. "In the past year, when I talked to several doctors, I realized the medical benefits. My dad passed away a year ago. If I'd known then what I know now I would have found him some to help with the pain and nausea" of cancer, he said.
Stacks said his motivation was also economic. "We felt like there was a strong need and we didn't see anyone else stepping up to the plate." Another Arkansas bank is said to be working with the industry, but has not gone public.
HomeBank had $78 million or $79 million in assets in its last quarter, Stacks said.
He purchased HomeBank, which is building headquarters in Greenbrier, in 2001. He took a leave of absence in 2014 after he was indicted on charges of submitting a false claim for federal disaster aid for his Mountain Pure water bottling company and wire fraud. He was convicted, but federal Judge Leon Holmes set aside two of the convictions, saying the prosecutor had insufficient evidence, and ordered a new trial. The U.S. attorney decided to dismiss the remaining charges rather than relitigate them.
Had Arkansas legislators attended this week's Ark-La-Tex Medical Cannabis Expo at the Statehouse Convention Center and seen the dozens of businesses that will be created as a result of the marijuana industry, they might have decided to expand, rather than limit, growing and dispensing in Arkansas.
There were booths for everything from fertilizer products to safety testing, hemp oil products, custom lighters and pipes and grinders, safe cash recycling and banking apps and grow lights. There was even a booth touting coconut coir as a growing medium.
One of the booths was hosted by the Arkansas Hemp Association, a nonprofit trade group founded to promote and expand non-intoxicating industrial hemp as an agricultural crop in the state. AHA Vice President Jeremy Fisher said the first licenses to grow experimental plots of hemp in the state should be issued by the Arkansas State Plant Board next spring. Arkansas approved the issuance of licenses to grow experimental plots of hemp in March 2017 with the passage of House Bill 1778, which became Act 981. The bill empowers the Plant Board to license growers to participate in a 10-year industrial hemp research program. The Plant Board will administer the program, in cooperation with the University of Arkansas's Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service. The board will set the location and acreage of the test plots. Yields and acreage will be small in early years, but should be steadily increased if the crop proves itself viable. An ancient crop that was historically grown for rope, sail canvas, fishing nets and clothing — George Washington grew the stuff at Mount Vernon — industrial hemp differs from cannabis in that it's low in THC, the active ingredient in cannabis that gets a user "high." Under the law, strains to be grown as industrial hemp in Arkansas must contain less than .3 percent THC. Fisher was a volunteer with Arkansans for Compassionate Care in 2014. After Issue 7, the ballot initiative pushed by ACC, was disqualified from the ballot, Fisher said medical marijuana advocates Gary and Melissa Fults asked him to help write a bill to try and get an industrial hemp pilot program for the state. With Nicholas Dial, now the president of the Arkansas Hemp Association, Fisher drafted the bill, which ultimately led to hemp being legalized by the Arkansas General Assembly. "Writing the bill, we put it under a research pilot program where farmers, processors and businesses can conduct agronomy research, water research and things like that and also market research," Fisher said. "It can help expand the business toward commercialization in the years down the road." Fisher said that unlike medical cannabis, which is often grown indoors under very strict lighting, nutrient and watering conditions to maximize its THC content, industrial hemp is grown outdoors like any other agricultural crop. "Similar to a weed," Fisher said, hemp is naturally drought tolerant and pest resistant, and can grown in pretty much any soil type. The plants mature at between 90 to 120 days, and have over 25,000 uses, Fisher said. "The major markets right now have to do with food for the seed oil, the industrial oil for cosmetics and shampoos and lotions, things like that," he said. "You can use the fiber to make fabrics, and also building materials." Fisher said insulation, particle board and fiberboard can be manufactured from the sturdy hemp fibers, which can also be mixed with cement to form "hempcrete," a strong and lightweight building material. Hemp can also be formulated into biodiesel. One of the biggest potential markets for hemp — and one that could have a huge impact on the economy of Arkansas — is its use in making paper. Unlike trees, which can take 20 to 30 years to grow big enough to pulp for paper, a hemp crop can be grown over a summer. There are currently five industrial paper mills in Arkansas, and Fisher said they could likely be retrofitted to use or supplement with hemp fiber. Fisher said that the support from the farming community for a new potential cash crop has been overwhelmingly positive. "Everyone we've talked to that's either a farmer or supports the agricultural community is 100 percent for it," he said. "They believe it's a great, green crop that can help give farmers something else to rotate in. Instead of poisoning or degrading the soils they have, it can jump start a new economy that can start new businesses and new processes for hemp. It's all support."
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main active ingredient in cannabis — and the one whose effects science know the most about. But, marijuana has over 80 cannabinoids that bind to the receptors in your brain. Beyond THC, the most talked about one is cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not have the psychoactive effects of marijuana but is being tested as a drug.
It's still too early to say for sure what CBD does or if it works as a vitamin. But it's not illegal to purchase products labeled "CBD only" in Arkansas, and vendors are selling it, both online and in dispensaries, in the form of oils, creams and drops that supposedly give relief to such things as arthritis. At the Expo, one company showed a slew of these products, even offering gummy bears to folks to sample and dog treats for their pooches.
Still, the FDA frowns on companies that make health claims on their CBD oil product labels, and has written warning letters to companies to stop making such claims, including That's Natural!, Stanley Brothers, Natural Alchemist and Green Roads Health (find more information on the fda.gov website).
Warning: Leafly.com says there may not be CBD in your CBD products. The only states in which you can be sure products contain CBD are where the products are regulated and tested: Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. As Leafly says, "outside of those four states, consumers must put their trust in the manufacturer."