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Medical marijuana commission gets rolling

Anti-gay lawyer among the appointees.


HUTCHINSON: State will implement the people's will on medical marijuana, but it remains to be seen how Trump administration will handle the conflict between federal and state law.
  • HUTCHINSON: State will implement the people's will on medical marijuana, but it remains to be seen how Trump administration will handle the conflict between federal and state law.

When Arkansas voters last month approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana, a clock began ticking to establish a system for the drug's production and distribution. On Monday, Dec. 12, the first piece of that new regulatory regime fell into place with the inaugural meeting of the five-member Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission. Governor Hutchinson and legislative leaders announced the appointments to the panel the previous week.

It should be emphasized that the commission's authority is limited to licensing of dispensaries and cultivation facilities. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Division will handle day-to-day regulation of those businesses. The Department of Health will oversee the patient side of the equation.

But with a limited number of potentially lucrative licenses to be allotted — the amendment mandates 20 to 40 dispensary licenses statewide, and four to eight licenses for cultivation centers — the commission's work is of great interest to both pro-pot and anti-pot groups, as well as entrepreneurs eager to break into the marijuana business. That accounted for the large audience at the Dec. 12 meeting, which spilled into the hallway outside the ABC's conference room.

Hutchinson's choice for the commission was Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman of Little Rock, a surgical oncologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science who specializes in breast cancer. Two commissioners were selected by Arkansas Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam: Dr. Stephen Carroll, a pharmacist from Benton, and Fayetteville lawyer Travis Story. Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang appointed Dr. Carlos Roman of Little Rock, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, and James Miller of Bryant, a former chief of staff for the state Senate who is now a lobbyist for the Arkansas Railroad Association, among other private interests.

Story's name is the best known among the five. A vocal advocate for conservative social causes, he's fought against Fayetteville's civil rights ordinance extending protections to LGBT people. He also helped defeat a similar nondiscrimination ordinance in Texarkana earlier this year, campaigned unsuccessfully against another civil rights measure in Eureka Springs, and is among those working to install a monument of the Ten Commandments on the state Capitol grounds. Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), who sponsored legislation in 2015 aimed at LGBT people, practices law at Story's firm.

When asked why Story was picked for the position — rather than an attorney with experience in state rules and regulations — Gillam replied, "There's not a lot of folks that put forth their applications that had that specific background, had that experience. So what we looked for was someone who had relative experience in the law. For me at least ... that was one of the prisms of thought that I used in arriving at the conclusion that I thought that he would be an asset to this commission." Gillam said that many of the lawyers intimately familiar with rules and regulations are already employed by the state.

Gillam, Dismang and the governor all publically opposed the marijuana measure, and Hutchinson, who was once director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fiercely campaigned against its passage. But since the election, the governor has said he'll work faithfully to implement the law "fairly and responsibly." He acknowledged at the press conference that implementing the law "was a position I hoped I would never be in" and added that he was still mindful that "what we are doing in terms of implementing the people's will in medical marijuana ... remains a violation of federal law. It remains to be seen as to what the Trump administration will do in this regard. ... But until we get a change of policy from Washington, we proceed on with the will of the people."

The commission's first meeting was strictly about housekeeping. Commissioners took an oath, elected Henry-Tillman as chair and heard from staffers at the Department of Finance and Administration and the attorney general's office about the timeline for promulgating rules and compliance with the state Freedom of Information Act. The commission set its next meeting — which should prove more substantial — for 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 20.

Application fees are established by the amendment itself: $7,500 for a dispensary and $15,000 for a cultivation facility. However, it remains to be seen how licenses will be distributed in Arkansas. The governor said last week that he's inclined toward a lottery, after applicants demonstrate their basic capacity and financial wherewithal to open a dispensary or grow center. "A lottery system is what has worked well with ... alcohol permits across Arkansas, so we are very familiar with that. ... That would be my inclination." Hutchinson also said he believes a lottery could help prevent large out-of-state interests from dominating the marijuana market.

The commissioners the Arkansas Times spoke to after the Dec. 12 meeting said it was too early to comment on a preferred method for distributing licenses.

Neither Henry-Tillman nor Story would say whether they voted for or against the amendment. At last week's press conference, Dismang admitted that he was aware that both of his appointees voted "no," but Hutchinson and Gillam wouldn't answer the question.

"I'm here to carry out the intent of the [voters]," Henry-Tillman said. "I think it's an exciting time." She noted that "not everyone in the state voted for it, and we have to be conscious of that." She also said she's had patients ask for medical marijuana in the past.

Roman, the anesthesiologist, has chaired the pain committee of the state Medical Board for 15 years, where he's worked to limit the abuse of opiates, benzodiazepines and other medications. "I think that's why they asked me to be on this, because of the work that I've done on overprescribing opiates," he said. Roman said some states that have instituted medical marijuana — such as Colorado — have seen a decline in prescription painkiller abuse, but he said he is concerned about the effects of using marijuana in tandem with opiates or other substances. "You still have to deal with the synergism of drugs. ... Overdose deaths are pretty much all from multi-substances."

Still, he also acknowledged marijuana is less addictive than alcohol (and vastly less so than opiates) and has a higher "safety margin" than many substances. "You can probably smoke your body weight in marijuana, if that were physiologically possible, and you will live to tell about it. You could take two or three pills of an opiate and not live to tell about it," he said. "I'm open to the efficacy of it and all that. I did vote against the amendment. A lot of doctors, we're a little skeptical of its application — particularly since we have Marinol, so it's not like we've never had access to cannabinoids in medicine."

"It's not a Snickers bar, but it's not heroin," Roman said. He said he has patients who would like to receive a medical marijuana prescription.

Commissioners will serve a term of four years (although two of the initial members will serve two-year terms, so as to stagger future appointments). The amendment says that they must "have no economic interest in a dispensary or cultivation facility." The governor pointed out at last week's press conference that the measure prohibits such "entanglements with the marijuana business," as he put it. To be a commissioner, Hutchinson said, "You really have to say, 'We're going to be part of the regulatory process and not be part of the marijuana business.' "

Commissioners are unpaid, although they may receive a stipend of up to $85 per day when attending meetings. They may also hire staff. A small portion of sales tax revenue generated on marijuana sales — 1 percent — will go toward the commission's funding; it can also impose fees and receive revenue from other sources.

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