The Senate Public Health committee this afternoon passed a bill that proposes a ban on the sale and production of edible marijuana products in Arkansas, with an exception for edibles prepared by medical marijuana patients or their caregivers. Senate Bill 333 passed on a voice vote with no dissent, although not all committee members were present.
The same Senate committee this morning passed a bill by Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) banning the smoking of marijuana in all locations in Arkansas. Should both measures eventually become law — which is far from certain, given that they’re only in the first stages of the legislative process — qualifying patients would still be able to vaporize pot, consume cannabis-derived oils and other products, or make their own edibles at home. Still, the legislation would significantly limit the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment passed by voters just four months ago.
SB 333 is sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs) and Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch). “I’m very concerned about this as a parent,” Lundstrum said, adding that there would still be other delivery mechanisms available to patients: “patches, creams, oils, gels.”
Left unclear in SB 333 is what exactly it covers. It prohibits “[combining] usable marijuana with food or drink,” but contains no definition of “food or drink.” That clearly includes things like cookies, brownies, sodas and candies — but what about orally ingested lozenges or tablets? After the meeting, Rep. Lundstrum told a reporter the bill should still allow the sale of pills or capsule that contain some form of marijuana derivative.
Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe — the son of committee chair Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) — spoke positively about the bill, although he emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of Governor Hutchinson, who has not taken a public position on SB 333. The surgeon general, who campaigned against medical marijuana during the 2016 election, said “edibles concerned me more than the smoking aspect” because it takes longer for orally consumed marijuana products to deliver their psychoactive effects, meaning people may accidentally consume too much. He cited examples in other states of “people who run out in traffic, people who have psychiatric fits where they assaulted people.” In some states with liberal marijuana regimes, he said, retailers sell “candy-like” products that appear targeted towards children.
“It’s concerning to me as a parent, it’s concerning to me as a physician,” Bledsoe said.
Melissa Fults of the Drug Policy Education Group spoke against the bill. She noted that the regulators at Alcoholic Beverage Control have already developed rules to prevent dispensaries and cultivation centers from making and selling products that look like candy or appeal to children with their packaging. Creating edible products at home is a labor-intensive process that involves the extraction of THC and other cannabinoids from marijuana with butter or another oil, and Fults said it was unfair to ask sick people to make such products themselves. “First you have to make the butter, which can take up to 48 hours. Then you have to make the edibles. … So you have someone who’s critically ill, who needs this medicine, and they don’t want to smoke it — which y’all passed through the committee, to not allow them to smoke it — how are they supposed to use it?”
Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) also urged a “no” vote. House has become the legislature’s resident expert on marijuana matters since the amendment passed in November and has argued repeatedly that the legislature should avoid placing excessive restrictions on cannabis. He agreed that edible products must be kept out of children’s hands, but said their sale should be regulated, not banned. “You have to keep kids away from aspirin, you have to keep kids away from all sorts of medicine,” he said. House argued that the focus should be on “empowering the executive agencies to make the decisions” in regards to regulation of the new marijuana industry, rather than passing new laws. “If we’re going to have medical marijuana, we have to be able to sell it.”
House later warned that restrictions on legalized marijuana would only make it harder to compete with the black market. He said the same Arkansas voters who just approved medical marijuana at the ballot might repay intransigent lawmakers if they stand in the way of the amendment being implemented as written. “I am worried about next general election, a petition being signed by 67,000 voters that totally decriminalizes cannabis. You can make it, grow it, possess it, smoke it, do whatever you want to with it, any time. That’s what I’m worried about. And if we fail to deliver the product that people want, and demand, then I’m afraid we’re going to see that, and it’ll be Katy, bar the door,” he said.
Jerry Cox of the Arkansas Family Council spoke for the bill. He said some states, such as New York and Minnesota, allow medical marijuana but impose restrictions so that it is “true medicine … a pill, capsule, nasal spray … a tincture, like a little drop of liquid you drop under your tongue.” Such products are “made by responsible companies that process and manufacture this as you would think medicine would be,” Cox said. He said the bill only prevents labeling as medicine things like “soda pop, candies, lemon drops.” In states in which edibles have been heavily restricted, he said, “apparently the black market hasn’t gone crazy … and apparently people haven’t died.”
The bill now heads to the Senate.