The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission today approved a set of draft rules governing the assignment of licenses to dispensaries and cultivation facilities, thus completing the body’s first two months of work.
The rules are now subject to a public comment period, after which there will be a hearing on Friday, March 31 at the Bowen School of Law in Little Rock. Typically, new agency rules undergo a public hearing only if such a meeting is requested by at least 25 members of the public, but the interest in medical marijuana is sufficiently high that staff at the Department of Finance and Administration decided to arrange one preemptively. “Out of an abundance of good faith, we’re going to go ahead and schedule a public hearing,” DFA staff attorney Joel DiPippa told the commissioners. “We’ve already secured a larger area with better air conditioning, as well as the ability to record the public’s comments.” (The commission’s frequent meetings these past two months have been held in a cramped room in the 1515 building typically filled well past seating capacity.)
After the March 31 hearing, the commission’s rules will still await review from the state legislature before taking effect. The rules must be finalized by early May, according to an extended timeline established by a bill passed earlier this legislative session. (The amendment originally required the rules to be final by March 9.)
The medical marijuana commission’s licensure rules are only one piece of a threefold regulatory puzzle. The Arkansas Department of Health completed its own draft rules in January, which concern patient registration and the testing and labeling of marijuana products; it is accepting public comments and will hold a hearing March 10. And Alcoholic Beverage Control is still working on rules governing the operations of dispensaries and grow centers. DiPippa said the public hearing on the ABC rules might be rolled into one with the commission’s March 31 hearing, for the sake of simplicity and considering how thoroughly the entities’ regulatory mandates interlock.
Meanwhile, the legislature can change the marijuana amendment itself, potentially reshaping the landscape. So far, the General Assembly has approved only modest tweaks, such as pushing back the timeline for rule promulgation; that bill was authored by Rep. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock), who has become the go-to legislator on all marijuana matters. However, there’s a growing list of other marijuana-related bills at the Capitol, which range from the significant (House’s proposal for an additional tax on the product) to the drastic (some Republican lawmakers want to forbid smoking the substance).
There were few surprises at today’s meeting. Contentious issues were largely decided at earlier commission meetings, such as the size of licensing and application fees, whether to use a merit- or lottery-based selection system, and how many licenses to assign initially. The commissioners decided today to add a criterion to the merit system that marijuana-related businesses promote public awareness and education of the safe use of cannabis products (though it cannot mandate such a thing).
At a previous meeting, the commission decided to assign licenses to dispensaries statewide based on a scheme in which Arkansas is geographically subdivided into eight regions, rather than four. Because the commission will initially distribute 32 dispensary licenses, each region will have up to four dispensaries. (Since counties or cities may vote themselves “dry,” though, there are no guarantees.) Also decided at a previous commission meting: Those dispensaries that grow marijuana must provide proof at least $200,000 in assets and at least $100,000 in liquid assets. Dispensaries that don’t grow plants will not face such an asset test. (The amendment allows dispensaries to grow up to 50 plants.)