Arkansas has 14 operating medical marijuana dispensaries, most of which have opened in more densely populated areas of the state. Northwest Arkansas’s Zone 1 is the only zone in the state in which all four dispensaries are open; none of the four dispensaries licensed to operate in Southwest Arkansas’s Zone 8 have opened. For medical marijuana cardholders in those areas, the costs of a visit to the nearest dispensary can add up quickly: In addition to the price of gas and cannabis products, the trip can require a full day of travel, which can mean a day of work missed or a day spent recuperating from the physical demands of the journey. Without convenient access to a dispensary, some cardholders must weigh the benefit of pain relief with the cost of securing it. 

Debbie, 61, lives in East Camden, in Zone 8, about 70 miles from Native Green Wellness dispensary in Hensley or Suite 443 and Green Springs Medical in Hot Springs. Debbie describes the 140-mile roundtrip to a dispensary as “an inconvenience and exhausting.” (Some buyers interviewed for this article asked to be identified by first name only).

“I don’t understand why the people in South Arkansas have to suffer the inconvenience,” Debbie said. “It’s time [the Medical Marijuana Commission] suspend and reissue permits for the ones not interested in [opening a dispensary], [or those who] bit off more than they can chew. You can’t put pain on hold.” 

Debbie, who lives on a fixed income, got her card in August, and she tries to stock up on medical marijuana when she visits a dispensary to “make it worth the drive, knowing I may not be back for a while.” Debbie said her doctor supports her medical marijuana use as a tool to help her get off the opioids she takes. While Debbie said she wants to “stress” that she does experience relief from using medical marijuana, such relief is difficult to come by. 

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“I can’t imagine the effects of it if I used it regularly,” Debbie said. “God’s plant heals. This is way overdue.”

In early December, Bloom Medicinals in Texarkana got Alcoholic Beverage Control approval to open. It is waiting on the state to approve its employees’ licenses. A member of the Bloom Medicinals staff said the dispensary hoped to open in late December, which would make it the first dispensary to open in Zone 8. 

All 32 of the state’s licensed dispensaries must renew their licenses by the end of June 2020. The Medical Marijuana Commission requires renewal paperwork to be submitted 60 days in advance of that deadline. Scott Hardin, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, said that from April to June, the DFA anticipates the commission will “closely review the renewal documents from those locations not yet serving patients.” 

“Ultimately, if there are dispensaries that are not open by June, the five members of the [Medical Marijuana Commission] must consider the factors presented and make a determination whether renewal is approved,” Hardin said. 

At a Medical Marijuana Commission meeting Oct. 23, ABC Director Doralee Chandler said that while the commission does not have the ability to revoke dispensary licenses, ABC does. At the time, Chandler said ABC was in the process of drafting rules for revoking licenses and hoped to have them approved and in place by January. The commission will meet next on Jan. 14, but until then, Hardin said, there is “not currently a rule in place addressing action [against unopened dispensaries] in this timeframe.” 

Melissa Fults, executive director of the Drug Policy Education Group, an Arkansas nonprofit that advocates for medical marijuana users and marijuana policy, said that even when all 32 dispensaries in the state are open, patients will still have limited access to medical marijuana — a problem Fults attributes to the way Arkansas’s medical marijuana amendment regulates the maximum number of dispensaries. 

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“When you only allow 40 dispensaries in an entire state, when other states have two and three and four times that, there’s no way it can serve enough of the people,” Fults said. “Even once all 40 of them get licensed and get opened, there are still going to be patients that are going to have to drive in excess of an hour, one way, to get their medication. And that is a problem.” 

(The state constitution allows for up to 40 dispensaries, but the Medical Marijuana Commission has initially only approved 32 to open.)

Fults sponsored the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, or Issue 7, the competing medical marijuana legislation that the Arkansas Supreme Court removed from the ballot on Oct. 27, 2016, ahead of the November 2016 election in which voters passed the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, now Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution. Under Fults’ proposed act, medical marijuana cardholders living at least 20 miles from a dispensary would have been permitted to grow their own marijuana plants. Fults said this provision was important for two reasons: to ensure cardholders had access to medical marijuana, and to act as a “trip-wire” for the state. 

“The way [our legislation] was written [was that] if by November of 2017 there was not a dispensary within 20 miles of you, you could grow your own,” Fults said. “So, consequently, if they did not get the program up and going, everyone would be able to grow. Which was an incentive to make the state actually get up off their tails and do what they were told to do by the people, rather than waiting two and a half years.” 

Arkansas’s first dispensary, Suite 443, opened in Hot Springs in May 2019, nearly three years after passage of the amendment. 

Annette, 41, got her medical marijuana card in February 2019 and has yet to use it. She lives in Newport, about an hour’s drive from NEA Full Spectrum, which opened Dec. 10 — the first dispensary to open in Northeast Arkansas’s Zone 3. Before the opening of NEA Full Spectrum, any and all dispensaries near Annette were over an hour and a half away. Annette said she has degenerative disc disease and has previously been prescribed hydrocodone. She now takes gabapentin, a drug used to treat nerve pain, and said she “can’t function on it, I’m so drunk and drowsy.” 

“I watched my mom for years take hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, get shots in her back, and she was addicted to the pills,” Annette said. “I refuse to take that route.” 

Annette receives Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, so her income is limited. After spending $250 for an evaluation for a medical marijuana card and $50 for the card itself, she hoped a dispensary would open near her within the year, but so far she has been unable to make a trip. 

“So that’s money I’ve lost and wasted,” Annette said. “The whole program is a joke.” 

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Her card expires in February, when she will have to pay a $50 fee to get it renewed.

Greenlight Dispensary in Helena is the only dispensary in the state that offers delivery of medical marijuana straight to cardholders’ homes. Greenlight, which began delivering medical cannabis in August, is the only dispensary open in Southeast Arkansas’s Zone 7. 

According to Greenlight’s website, cardholders can place orders for delivery online with a debit card only. The dispensary delivers to local cardholders in the Helena-West Helena area from Monday to Thursday. The minimum order for local cardholders is $20, and the local delivery fee is $8.

The dispensary’s “extended delivery area” is organized by ZIP Code for 13 Arkansas cities: orders from Marianna and West Memphis are delivered on Mondays only, with a minimum order ranging from $75-$100 and delivery fees ranging from $10-$29; deliveries to Paragould occur only on Tuesdays, with a minimum order of $125 and a delivery fee of $35; orders from Jonesboro are delivered only on Wednesdays, with a minimum order of $100 and a $29 delivery fee. No extended area deliveries are made on Thursdays and Fridays; on Saturdays, Greenlight employees are busy delivering to all 26 of Little Rock’s ZIP codes, with a minimum order of $150 and a $39 delivery fee. Orders from cardholders who live in the extended delivery area must be made the day before their area’s designated delivery day. 

Alex Wall, a manager at Greenlight, said the dispensary’s delivery service has received a “phenomenal” response from cardholders. 

“Everybody’s loving it, and it makes [ordering] really easy,” Wall said. “We have a lot of patients who are not able to make it here and visit us on the regular, so it makes it easier. They can place an order once a week, and we come to the doorstep.” 

Wall added that the dispensary is “always” looking to expand its delivery area, but for now it’s focused on helping “those patients that need us and are constantly placing orders.” 

 Green Springs Medical Dispensary in Hot Springs opened May 12, the second dispensary to open in the state. Since then, it has sold more pounds of medical marijuana than any other dispensary. As of Dec. 16, Green Springs Medical had sold over 950 pounds of marijuana. Dragan Vicentic, CEO of Green Springs Medical, said the dispensary is interested in delivering medical marijuana products to its customers, but it’s now “using all of our resources” to serve the 350 cardholders who visit the store every day. Vicentic said Green Springs Medical tried delivering just to cardholders who lived within a 15-mile radius from the dispensary, but to “devote the resources” to continue to do that and help customers in person became “very difficult to do.” 

Vicentic said offering delivery is also difficult because of the “hurdles” dispensaries are required to “jump through” by ABC. One of the rules for dispensary delivery requires that two drivers must be in each delivery vehicle — one to bring product inside to the cardholder and one to remain in the vehicle to guard other medical marijuana product. Vicentic said this rule is “really not fair,” considering that “pharmacies deliver a lot more value in pharmaceuticals than medical marijuana, and they don’t have to go through all that kind of stuff and … [have] the type of security that the ABC is requesting.” 

Bethany, 31, lives 30 miles south of Fort Smith with her daughter, who has special needs. Bethany said she receives disability benefits and is on a limited income. She received her medical marijuana card in June, and she said she tries to visit a dispensary once every two weeks. She lives in West Central Arkansas’s Zone 4, where 420 Dispensary in Russellville opened Dec. 17 and Fort Cannabis Co. in Fort Smith opened Dec. 18. Before those dispensaries opened, she said she has to travel either to The ReLeaf Center in Bentonville or Green Springs Medical in Hot Springs, each a one-way drive of about two hours from her home. She said she loses a “full day” each time she goes. When she does visit a dispensary, Bethany said she “cannot afford to get much,” so she still depends on her pain medications for “at least two weeks out of the month.”

Bethany is a single mother and a full-time student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and she said the medications she was prescribed for severe back pain were “making it hard to go to school” and do things with her daughter. Since receiving her medical marijuana card, however, Bethany said she’s been able to make a “dramatic decrease” in the amount of pain medications she’s taking — some of which she hasn’t refilled since May. 

“Having my medical card is slowly giving me my life back,” Bethany said. “I just wish it was more affordable. I feel that if I could afford enough medical marijuana to replace my pain medications, [then] I would be completely off of them.” 

Matt Thomas, 46, lives in El Dorado, Zone 8, where he works as a lawyer. He must drive at least two hours one way to either Native Green Wellness in Hensley or Green Springs Medical in Hot Springs to buy medical marijuana. He received his medical marijuana card in February to treat a number of conditions — including psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, ulcerative colitis and fibromyalgia — and said that before using medical cannabis, he was taking “18 pills a day, including opioids, as well as pills to treat the side effects of the medications I was taking.” 

Since receiving his card, Thomas said he’s found great relief. 

“With medical marijuana, I have gotten my life back in control,” Thomas said. “Even the chronic fatigue I can treat with [a sativa strain] when I lose steam and [an indica strain] when I need sleep, so my treatment can be customized from day to day.” 

Thomas said he visits a dispensary weekly, but added that “even for me, the cost is getting out of hand.” 

While pricing for medical marijuana products is determined by each individual dispensary, dispensaries are limited to the medical marijuana flower and products that are grown and processed by the state’s three operating cultivation facilities: Bold Team Cultivation in Cotton Plant, Osage Creek Cultivation in Berryville and Natural State Medicinals in White Hall. 

Chandler, director of ABC, has told the Medical Marijuana Commission that the two unopened cultivation facilities, Natural State Wellness and Delta Medical Cannabis, both in Newport, expect to begin fully operating at the beginning of the year. At a meeting Nov. 20, Chandler said one of the two unopened facilities has been “partially approved” to begin operating, meaning it’s been approved to start growing plants while construction on other parts of the facility is finalized. 

DFA spokesman Hardin said medical marijuana cardholders who live in parts of the state without dispensaries contact the agency “quite frequently” about the status of the unopened dispensaries. He said the DFA responds by telling people that Amendment 98, Arkansas’s medical marijuana amendment, “does not include a date by which dispensaries must be operational.” 

“Due to this, the pace at which these dispensaries are developed and open for business is totally at the discretion of [their] owners,” Hardin said. “ABC Enforcement agents continually check in with owners, requesting status updates while issuing a reminder that the company was licensed to serve patients.”

As of Dec. 13, 2019, the Arkansas Department of Health has approved 31,655 medical marijuana ID cards. 

C.J. Mingues, 32, lives in Searcy, and he received his medical marijuana card in August. He’s visited a dispensary twice since then — Native Green Wellness in Hensley, Fiddler’s Green in Mountain Home and the Hot Springs dispensaries are each over an hour away from him — but he said he’s usually either “too busy to make the trip” or he doesn’t have the money. 

Mingues said he has degenerative disc disease, so his spine is “slowly deteriorating,” but he doesn’t like taking pain medication because he fears getting addicted, and he doesn’t like “how [pain pills] zombify you, where you can’t function properly.” 

“[Degenerative disc disease] is a pain that will never go away, I’ve got it the rest of my life,” Mingues said. “It’ll only get worse. So the last thing I want to do is sleep the rest of my life.”

Instead, Mingues uses medical marijuana to relax his muscles, including a sativa strain that keeps him alert and helps him function throughout the day. But during the interim between dispensary visits? 

“I basically suffer in silence,” Mingues said. “I’ve dealt with this pain for years … so I’m quite used to suffering.”   

Mandy Keener
AS OF DEC. 18: The status of Arkansas’s 32 dispensaries.

  

 

  1. Acanza Health Group
    2733 N. McConnell Ave., Fayetteville
    OPEN as of 9/14/19
  1. Purspirit Cannabis Co.
    (formerly Northwest AR Medical Cannabis Co.)
    3390 Martin Luther King Blvd., Fayetteville
    OPEN as of 11/20/19
  1. The Source (formerly Arkansas Medicinal Source Patient Center)
    406 Razorback Drive, Bentonville
    OPEN as of 8/15/19
  1. The ReLeaf Center
    9400 E. McNelly Road, Bentonville
    OPEN as of 8/7/19
  1. Fiddler’s Green
    16150 state Hwy. 9, Mountain View
    OPEN as of 7/11/19
  1. Big Fish of North Central Arkansas
    3001 state Hwy. 25 B, Heber Springs
    NOT OPEN
  1. Plant Family Therapeutics
    5172 U.S. Hwy. 62 E., Mountain Home
    NOT OPEN
  1. Arkansas Natural Products
    1303 U.S. Hwy. 65 S., Clinton
    OPEN as of 6/20/19
  2. THX RX, Inc.
    3700 I-40 Frontage Road E., West Memphis
    NOT OPEN
  1. Delta Cannabis Co.
    1151 E. Service Road, West Memphis
    NOT OPEN
  2. Comprehensive Care Group
    201 and 203 N. Ok St.,
    West Memphis
    NOT OPEN
  1. NEA Full Spectrum Medicine
    12001 U.S. Hwy. 49 N., Brookland
    OPEN as of 12/10/19
  2. Fort Cannabis Co.
    3904 Ayers Road, Fort Smith
    OPEN as of 12/18/19
  3. River Valley Dispensary
    23788 state Hwy. 38 W., Bluffton
    NOT OPEN
  1. Johnson County Dispensary
    131 Massengale Road, Clinton
    NOT OPEN
  1. 420 Dispensary, Inc.
    (formerly 420 RX Inc.)
    3506 S. Arkansas Ave.,
    Russellville
    OPEN as of 12/17/19
  1. Harvest Cannabis Dispensary
    1200 Thomas G. Wilson Drive, Conway
    OPEN as of 10/11/20
  1. Herbology Dispensary
    (formerly Grassroots OPCO)
    7303 Kanis Road, Little Rock
    NOT OPEN
  1. Natural State Wellness Dispensary
    900 S. Rodney Parham Road,
    Little Rock
    NOT OPEN
  1. Natural Relief Dispensary
    3107 E. Kiehl Ave., Sherwood
    NOT OPEN
  1. Green Springs Medical
    309 Seneca St., Hot Springs
    OPEN as of 5/12/19
  1. Native Green Wellness Center
    26225 U.S. Hwy. 167, Hensley
    OPEN as of 7/2/19
  1. Suite 443
    (formerly Doctor’s Orders)
    4897 Malvern Ave., Hot Springs
    OPEN as of 5/10/19
  1. Natural State Medical Group
    10200 state Hwy. 5, Alexander
    NOT OPEN
  1. Pain Free RX
    Mallard Loop, Pine Bluff
    NOT OPEN
  1. Greenlight
    (formerly Delta Cultivators)
    2000 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Helena
    OPEN as of 6/27/19
  1. Pine Bluff Agriceuticals
    108 Grider Field, Pine Bluff
    NOT OPEN
  1. Arkansas Patient Services
    179 Industrial Park Drive, Warren
    NOT OPEN
  1. Noah’s Ark
    3213 Northwest Ave., El Dorado
    NOT OPEN
  1. Bloom Medicinals
    410 Realtor Ave., Texarkana
    NOT OPEN
  1. RX Med
    4423 E. Broad St., Texarkana
    NOT OPEN
  1. Arkadelphia Dispensary
    188 Valley St., Arkadelphia
    NOT OPEN