There were 913 days between Arkansas voter approval of medical cannabis on Nov. 8, 2016, and the day the first bud of legally grown, marijuana was legally sold to a card-holding patient. That’s a long time, and — given that we’ve got a deadly, pain-born opioid epidemic going on and all — a crying shame. Whatever the case, after literally years of foot dragging and application scoring, red tape and hinky-as-hell shenanigans from the state Medical Marijuana Commission, the age of medical cannabis in Arkansas is finally here.
Doctor’s Orders RX, a dispensary at 4897 Malvern Ave., between Malvern and Hot Springs, was the first to sell legally in the state on May 10. Green Springs Medical, at 309 Seneca St., within the city limits of Hot Springs, opened shortly thereafter. Both were mobbed in those first days by patients eager to sample what years of frustrated waiting had wrought. While we wait for the state’s other cultivators and dispensaries to come online in the next weeks and months, the Arkansas Times decided to get over to both Green Springs Medical and Doctor’s Orders RX, buy from both, and see what they’re all about.
Located about a mile behind Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, Green Springs Medical is inside a large metal building on a hill, with a colorful awning, flags and a sign painted in a calming teal out front. The reviewer visited on a weekday evening less than a week after the grand opening. By then, the long lines and crowds had dissipated.
Security, as you might imagine, is tight. Every external window is heavily barred. In the entryway, patrons are met with a metal detector inside its own, sweltering glass room. Go through it and you’ll find yourself before another glass door, which you must be buzzed through by staff once you’ve cleared the detector. Through that door is a clean and well-lit waiting room, with upholstered chairs for patients to sit in while filling out paperwork or waiting their turn to enter the actual dispensary floor.
As is the case at Doctor’s Orders RX, no one without a state-issued medical cannabis patient or caregiver card can enter Green Springs, even to sit inside. While that seemed a little harsh to me, given that a lot of patients are driven to the dispensary by friends and relatives, one of the Green Springs owners — who was walking around the lobby with a chrome-plated handgun on his hip, chatting with waiting patrons while sporting the smile of a man who had figured out how to grow money — said the entry prohibition for all but licensed patients was an edict that had come down from the state. Sorry, lookie loos.
On one wall of the waiting area were two glass windows, where I was asked for my cannabis card and driver’s license and given a very basic medical form to fill out. The cards were photocopied, my cannabis card was scanned and, once I’d handed in the form, I was buzzed through yet another security door that led into the actual sales floor. Glass cases lined the edges of the room. A large sculpture of a writhing dragon stood in one corner.
While the decor of Green Springs was clearly still coming together and evidence of the mad dash to open was plentiful, the place already looks like you’d imagine a dispensary: clean, bright and locked down to the hilt. Some cases held a few dry herb and oil vapes for sale, though vape oil cartridges were not available. I stepped to a counter and was met by my “budtender,” a young man with a beard, clearly living the dream. Inside the case before us, the four or five strains of cannabis Green Springs had on hand after the long opening-day lines had cleared out were displayed in screw-top mason jars.
My budtender had clearly done his homework, reeling off THC percentages and commonly accepted medical uses of each strain, along with the genetic split between indica and sativa, inviting me to look at the structure of each strain and even open the jars for a heady whiff of the buds inside. We marveled together over the wide range of smells between strains, from subtle to skunky. Eventually, I settled on an eighth-ounce of Holy Roller OG, a sativa-dominant hybrid with a stout 25 percent THC content. As I watched, my budtender weighed my order out into a green, childproof bottle sitting on a countertop scale, plucking the small, sturdy buds out of the jar with tongs. A label was slapped on the bottle that included my name, strain information and patient number, and after being buzzed through a series of security doors, I was out, having successfully purchased legal cannabis in Arkansas. At $15 a gram and about $7 in state, county and local taxes, my order came to $59.59. All told, the visit took me less than 15 minutes. Later, at home, I reweighed the cannabis on my own scale, and found it to be spot on at 3.5 grams (equivalent to 1/8th ounce).
While officially in Hot Springs, Doctor’s Orders RX is far enough out from the Spa City that it makes more sense for Little Rock-area visitors to drive up Interstate 30 and come in from Malvern. The dispensary is in a low cinderblock building that has been painted white and is at the edge of a gravel lot. As was the case at Green Springs, the evidence of a thrash to open was plentiful. Though the lines had cleared out by the time we visited, there was still a row of folding chairs just outside the door. The front door opened onto a small, bare room with a window set into one wall. The window was trimmed in unpainted lumber, with a worker behind the glass. The room was hot the day we were there, crowded with two ice chests, a dog bed and a single folding chair to sit in while filling out a required form that asked me to list my name, doctor and the conditions that led me to seek medical cannabis.
Once my card was scanned and the form was handed in, I was buzzed through to the dispensary, where I was greeted by a friendly budtender behind a glass case. While Doctor’s Orders RX had many of the same strains to be had at Green Springs, and my budtender was similarly versed in the effects and benefits of the strains on offer, the main difference — and, in my opinion, drawback — to Doctor’s Orders RX was that all the cannabis for sale the day I visited was prepackaged and sealed by grower BOLD Team (the only legal grower in Arkansas at the time) in tidy white cans, each bearing a label on the bottom listing the strain, harvest date, THC percentage and more. That, of course, negates actually seeing and smelling the cannabis before it is dispensed, while also limiting you to buying the prepackaged amounts they have on hand. Too, BOLD Team’s cans, while attractive and likely to foil a curious child, were a bit tough to open, requiring you to press the can between your palms and then simultaneously twist your hands in opposite directions. I can guarantee you there are some patients with limited strength, mobility or other impairments who will have to get an assist to get their can open.
From the available strains, I chose a 3.5 gram can of Cookies and Chem, an indica-dominant hybrid with up to 30 percent THC, said to be good for stress, relaxation, inflammation and chronic pain. After making my choice, the budtender relayed my decision to a worker behind a nearby window, who then retrieved the product. When I asked my budtender and another worker present if I could have smelled the cannabis before purchase, they told me that wasn’t possible because of the prepackaging.
My can was retrieved by the worker behind the window, the one hiccup being that the woman mistakenly thought that I’d selected two 3.5 gram cans instead of only one. After the mistake was corrected, I paid (like Green Springs, Doctor’s Orders is cash only), a sticker with my name and patient number was put on the can, and I was ushered out through what will be the main dispensary area at some point: a large room with a bare concrete floor, framed photos leaning against the wall and several new glass cases awaiting installation. After going through a few more security doors, I was outside again. Doctor’s Orders RX is outside the Hot Springs city limits, so the total price was $58.80. When I got out to the parking lot and opened the can, I found that the tamper resistant foil seal inside was lifted along one edge, though it looked like that was possibly a sealing error. Whatever the case, when I weighed the cannabis from Doctor’s Orders RX at home, it came in a hair over the official amount, at 3.6 grams.
While it is hard to judge businesses so early in the game, when both had just gone through the crucible of an all-hands-on-deck opening followed by a days-long crush of patients, Green Springs was the clear winner at this point when it came to location, ambiance and buying experience. Folks at both dispensaries were friendly and knowledgeable about their wares, but being able to see and smell the cannabis before you buy it, and watch while it is parceled out and weighed, added greatly to the experience and the trust factor. If the owners of Doctor’s Orders RX are wise, they’ll ditch the prepackaged cans and invest in some jars. Too, there’s the inescapable fact that Green Springs just looks a lot more finished, and thus feels a lot more welcoming inside. While it will be interesting to return to both establishments in a few months to see how their processes, decor and operations have been refined, for now Green Springs Medical will be my personal go-to, at least until dispensaries open closer to home.