DREAMCATCHER: From Bold. Brian Chilson

The price of medical marijuana in Arkansas has fallen in recent months, but advocates say the prices are still too high. 

As new cultivators begin to enter the Arkansas marketplace, prices at the state’s dispensaries have fallen over the past three months, according to industry leaders and a review of prices on menu sites Weed Map and Leafly.

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Good Day Farm of Pine Bluff, which purchased the marijuana cultivation business formerly known as Natural State Wellness Enterprises in Newport in November 2020, is the latest cultivator to add products to dispensary shelves. A new cultivator in Fort Smith has been cleared by state regulators to begin growing, and other cultivators in Grady and Garland County are scheduled to be in operation within the next year. 

Despite the recent price reductions, Melissa Fults, a longtime marijuana advocate, said patients tell her every day that the price of medical marijuana in Arkansas is still too high. Patients on fixed incomes struggle to pay their bills as well as pay the high prices for medical marijuana, she said. Some struggling patients have even turned to the black market where the product is cheaper, Fults said. 

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“I hear these stories day after day after day,” Fults said. “It’s not just one person.” 

Fults said the prices of marijuana products and taxes levied by state, county and local jurisdictions often amount to $400 per ounce. 

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David Couch, the Little Rock lawyer who authored the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana, said the price of marijuana is still too high in the state. 

“It is substantially higher than in states with a more competitive market,” Couch said. “It’s too high for most people to afford it.” 

Using prices listed on marijuana menu sites WeedMaps and Leafly, a recent review showed the price of one-eighth of an ounce of indica flower with a THC content of at least 20% in Arkansas has fallen from $44.75 in June to $38 in September. During the same period, the price of a half-gram vape cartridge fell from $61.66 to $48.02 and the price of a 10-pack of edible gummies fell from $26.66 to $21.68. 

The price review also showed that states with well-established recreational marijuana markets, such as California and Colorado, have lower prices than Arkansas. 

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California has an average price of $21.17 per one-eighth of an ounce of indica flower, while Colorado has an average price of $27.88. California also has an average price of $23.49 for vape cartridges and $14.02 for gummies. Colorado dispensaries are selling vape cartridges for $31.92 and gummies for $18.43 on average. 

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The marijuana markets in California and Colorado are older and quite different from the one in Arkansas. California first approved medical marijuana in 1996 and Colorado followed in 2001. Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012 and California followed suit four years later. 

The program in Missouri, on the other hand, has some similarities to Arkansas as a new medical program in a state that does not allow recreational marijuana. The Show Me State passed medical marijuana last year and many dispensaries only recently became operational. Missouri has 198 licensed dispensaries and 58 licensed cultivators, while Arkansas is limited to 40 dispensaries and eight cultivators.  

According to the price review, Missouri dispensaries sell one-eighth of an ounce of indica flower for $57.49, vape cartridges for $59.33 and gummies for $29.72. Each price is significantly higher than the prices in Arkansas. 

The review also showed much lower prices in Oklahoma, but some industry leaders caution against using Oklahoma as a comparison to Arkansas. 

Oklahoma passed medical marijuana in 2018, but the program bears little comparison to Arkansas’s program. 

Arkansas law restricts the number of cultivators and dispensaries, while Oklahoma does not. Arkansas law also requires patients to meet at least one of 17 qualifying conditions, while Oklahoma does not have defined qualifying conditions. In Oklahoma, doctors can certify patients based on whether they believe medical marijuana would benefit the patient. 

As a result, Oklahoma has exponentially more cultivators, dispensaries and patients than Arkansas. 

As of Sept. 3, Oklahoma had 8,630 growers and 2,378 dispensaries serving 378,312 patients. Arkansas, by contrast, has six operating cultivators and 36 operating dispensaries serving 79,420 patients. 

The price review showed that Oklahoma dispensaries are selling indica flower for $14.42 per one-eighth of an ounce, vape cartridges for $25.62 and gummies for $15.89. 

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While the prices are much lower than Arkansas’s, it’s unfair to compare Arkansas and its neighbor to the west because the programs are vastly different, said Bill Paschall, executive director of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association. Despite being called a medical marijuana program, Oklahoma’s program is practically recreational marijuana, he said. “On paper, it’s a medical marijuana state, but when you’ve got 400,000 patients in that state, it’s one step shy of recreational or it’s recreation with a wink,” Paschall said. “It’s not a fair comparison.”

Robbin Rahman, executive director of Harvest Cannabis Dispensary in Conway, said he hears a continuous drumbeat of comparison between Arkansas and Oklahoma, which he says is unfair. The Arkansas and Oklahoma marketplaces could not be more different because the regulatory framework of each state is vastly different, he said. 

“You couldn’t have two more different systems legally,” Rahman said. “You couldn’t have just two more different marketplaces than Oklahoma and Arkansas.”

Rahman said the economic drivers in a regulated market such as Arkansas’s marijuana market are “created by the regulations themselves.”  

Arkansas’s limited-license market has created a market dynamic in which Arkansas cultivators and dispensaries invest in their licenses and develop their businesses because they know their licenses are valuable, Rahman said. 

The limits on the numbers of dispensaries and cultivators create dynamics that affect how the state’s market operates, he said. 

“[Limited licensing] creates a market dynamic,” Rahman said. “People can invest in those licenses because they have value and will continue to have value, because they are limited. In that sense, people do invest lots of money in their licenses.”  

Rahman said cultivators spend many millions of dollars to build their facilities with lots of high-tech equipment. Carpenter Medical Group, for instance, recently told the Alcohol Beverage Control board that it is spending $15 million to build its cultivation facility in Grady. 

Couch has a different outlook on the comparisons to Oklahoma. 

While Couch wrote the amendment with limited licensing, he said he wrote it that way as a strategy to get the amendment passed. Couch said he learned from the arguments against a marijuana amendment he promoted in 2012 that opponents said unlimited licensing would allow a proliferation of marijuana businesses in neighborhoods. So, Couch said, he countered that argument in his 2016 amendment by limiting the number of cultivators and dispensaries. The 2016 amendment passed, with 53% of the voters approving it.  

Couch said he believes a more open marketplace like Oklahoma benefits patients more than the Arkansas model. Some Arkansas patients even cross the border into Oklahoma to purchase marijuana more cheaply at Oklahoma dispensaries, then transport it back to Arkansas. (Warning, that’s illegal.) 

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Casey Flippo, owner of Little Rock marijuana processor Dark Horse Medicinals, said it’s important to remember that Arkansas patients get something valuable for their money that other places like Oklahoma lack. The state has good quality standards and controls, resulting in products that have a better effect for the patients. 

“I’ve been to some of the top cultivation centers in the state, and those guys are spending an obscene amount of money to produce a quality and consistent product relative to states like Oklahoma,” Flippo said. 

Flippo said he has talked to patients who say they want to move to Oklahoma where marijuana is cheaper. 

“I totally understand that, but it’s probably grown in the back of somebody’s house,” Flippo said. “And that might be half an acre away from a rice field that is getting sprayed down with multiple different pesticides, herbicides and fungicides throughout the year.”

Flippo said marijuana is “not inexpensive to grow,” but Arkansas patients are getting a lot for their money. 

“While I do think the prices will decline to more acceptable levels, our patient pool needs to understand, it’s more expensive for a reason,” Flippo said. “It is more quality than what you are seeing across the border. I think price will drive down but there is an equilibrium, and they need to understand that when you have somebody producing this material in a $50 million facility, naturally it’s going to be a little more expensive than the guy at the apartment complex that you are used to getting it from.” 

Fults, the advocate for NORML, is working with a group to get an amendment for recreational marijuana for adults on the ballot next year in Arkansas. The amendment would include an expansion of cultivators and dispensaries, but would not allow residents to grow their own marijuana. Fults would not disclose the name of the group she is working with, but said she expects the amendment to be submitted next month. 

Fults said she hasn’t seen the final language of the amendment but believes the amendment “should be acceptable for everyone” and will help lower prices. The preliminary proposal would double the state’s cultivators and triple the dispensaries.

“That will bring the price down,” Fults said. “If you double the cultivators and triple the dispensaries in the state, it’s going to bring the prices down and patients might actually be able to afford it,” Fults said. 

Flippo said legalizing recreational marijuana is the logical next step for the Arkansas market. Until then, he expects prices to continue to fall and hopes Arkansas patients know they are getting quality product in the state. “People need to understand when they go into dispensaries, there’s a lot that goes into that product they are putting into bodies,” Flippo said. “There’s a little bit of a premium associated with that.”