Scott Hardin of the Department of Finance and Administration says Natural State Wellness has paid its $100,000 permit fee and posted the $500,000 bond required for issuance of its permit to grow medical marijuana.
Natural State Wellness, which had two permit approvals but, by law, could choose to pursue only one, paid to build a facility in Jackson County, rather than Jefferson County as they’d originally announced. The other four permits anticipate facilities in Carroll, Woodruff, Jackson and Jefferson Counties.
With that, all five of the top scorers in the evaluation of more than 80 applications, have paid. The Medical Marijuana Commission is to meet March 14 to ratify the winners.
One open question: Will the various criticisms — some of which have surfaced and some of which have been behind the scenes — be voiced by anyone at next week’s commission meeting.
The growers are expected to begin preparing facilities immediately, with marijuana available for sale late this year or early next year. But none can be sold until the Commission awards 32 dispensary permits. That review process is still underway.
Natural State Wellness’ ownership includes Hank Wilkins V, son of Jefferson County Judge Hank Wilkins, a former state legislator. Its original decision has stirred political opponents of Wilkins. Former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, one of the owners of Natural State Wellness, issued this news release shortly after the DFA announcement:
I’ve asked McDaniel if financial incentives played a role in the change. He says both counties made similar offers.
Republican Stu Soffer of White Hall has been raising questions about the group’s plans because he learned that the taxpayer-funded Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County bought the land for the planned facility. The county judge is the disbursing agent for county sales tax revenues, which flow to the alliance among others. He notes, too, that the McDaniel law firm has done legal work for the county.
UPDATE: Some further nosing around indicates that this indeed might be a victory over new jobs for Jefferson County that Soffer can claim (not that he’ll want to do THAT), or at least the poisonous politics that seem to often attend matters around Pine Bluff. There’s no indication the county judge played a role in proffered economic incentives — low-cost land and lower cost water — that were similar to those offered in Jackson County. But the week has seen a rapid rise in political conspiracy theories about the entire process, not just this application. Where major investors can avoid guilt by association, some may choose to do so.
ALSO: Multiple sources predict a lawsuit will be filed today over the permitting process, with the likeliest plaintiff believed to be a group with ties to people associated with the Stephens financial empire, though several groups could collaborate.
Can you sue? And if you do sue, will the state invoke sovereign immunity? That latter is an interesting developing question. I was told today — and I have a question to the governor’s office about it — that Gov. Asa Hutchinson has directed state agencies NOT to invoke that defense without permission from his office.
Meanwhile, economic development people in Jefferson County are distressed “to the point of tears” by losing the facility, Arkansas Business reports.